VOn June 6, 2019, in a concert to be repeated June 7th, 8th and 11th, Australian conductor Simone Young made her subscription series debut leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a balanced program opening with dark and highly atmospheric works of Liszt and Wagner followed by a second half devoted to a lustrous performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 as orchestrated by Schoenberg. Young, winner of Limelight’s 2018 Australian Artist of the Year Critic’s Choice Award, is currently principal guest conductor of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, and has a career fully steeped in both operatic and symphonic works.
Throughout the evening, the superb CSO brass sounded particularly polished and persuasive. For the first and last works on the program, CSO horn David Griffin played principal horn. Acting Principal Horn Daniel Gingrich played principal horn for the excerpts from Götterdämmerung by Wagner. During those excerpts, CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy played a Bass Trumpet and there were also 4 Wagner tubas included in the instrumentation; these are infrequently used brass wind instruments that combine tonal elements of both the French horn and the trombone. Acting Principal Trumpet Mark Ridenour played principal trumpet for all three works on the program.
The concert opened with a work that was new to the Chicago Symphony’s performance repertoire, Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem No. 5, Prometheus, 1850-55. Inspired by the myth of the Greek god who gave mankind the gift of fire and was terribly punished, it’s an elaborate fugue that ends in a triumphant coda. Under the strongly defining direction of Maestro Young, it came across as deeply eloquent.
Beginning with dissonant, harsh chords, a passionate first theme embodied the Titan’s suffering, swiftly followed by the hopeful second theme’s entrance via the harmonious cellos. Young kept strict control of the workings of the subsequent fugue followed by the lament and the recapitulation of the dual themes that combine in the upbeat finale.
Next, the Orchestra moved through three sensational chosen excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the gods), 1869-76, the last musical drama in his colossal four opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen. The pieces performed, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music, and Epilogue, contain music from both the prologue and Act 3. The first two extended orchestral selections are often presented outside the traditional opera house setting.
The excerpts were played swiftly and dramatically, yet with a fluid control of tempo that swept the music in a rush of melody. Young led the CSO in clean entrances, precise attacks and releases, with a finely balanced interplay among the instruments. The central portion, Siegfried’s Death, was delivered with particularly stunning dramatic weight, the CSO delivering a rare intensity shot through with a bittersweet quality.
After the intermission, the program switched gears, presenting Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1861), (orch. Arnold Schoenberg, 1937). The original piano piece has an underlying symphonic quality faithfully adhered to in what has been called “expert and masterful scoring in this chamber music writ large”.
Young appeared to inspire the CSO to play this wonderfully rich piece with fervid and abundant textures. The opening was lush, the Intermezzo delightfully imbued with the sense of a rural landscape, the vibrant woodwinds sounding sweet and agile. The Andante was infused with both lyrical melody and a nicely contrasting martial section. The highly percussive finale, colorful and jaunty, finished the piece with rhythm and fire. It was a compelling performance by both Maestro and Orchestra, a wonderful end to a superior concert.
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All photos by Todd Rosenburg