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October 16, 2003

CSO's farm team proves it can hack it in the major leagues

The Civic Orchestra opened its 2003 season on Monday evening at Symphony Center with Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 92 (Oxford) and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. These two works represent two fundamentally different musical periods and personae, yet complement each other nicely as compact essays in symphonic writing. Under Resident Conductor Cliff Colnot, the Civic Orchestra demonstrated why, despite having over 50 new members since last season and having met for the first time a little less than one month ago, it is one of the preeminent pre-professional orchestras in the world.

As the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony, the Civic Orchestra is the only such organization of its kind in the United States. The orchestra is comprised of gifted young musicians, from over 20 states and a dozen nations, seeking to launch their careers as orchestral players. They are led by the indefatigable Colnot, an accomplished instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and conductor.

Haydn (1732-1809) has often been designated as "the father of the symphony," though he would be more aptly described as "the father of the string quartet." Nevertheless, his symphonic output is astounding: a whopping 106 works (compared to Mozart's 41 and Beethoven's 9). This figure must be understood in context, though. For the majority of his career, from 1761 to 1790, Haydn was in the direct service of the Esterházy family, the richest and most influential family among the Hungarian nobility. As a paid servant, Haydn was in charge of all music making at the court, which included both performance and composition. His prodigious output in this period is a direct result of the demands put on him by his employer.

The symphony on Monday's program was composed in the late 1780's, just before Haydn would be freed from his duties at the Esterházy court. At this point he was at the pinnacle of his career, having single-handedly shaped the symphony into the form we know today. His final dozen symphonies (the so-called London Symphonies, written in the post-Esterházy period) were composed as commissions for a pair of highly successful tours of England.

These works not only confirmed Haydn's reputation as one of Europe's preeminent composers, but also established him as the bridge between the era of composer as paid servant, and the era of composer as self-employer.

While employed at the Esterházy court, Haydn had, at the time of this symphony, roughly 22 to 24 musicians at his disposal. Thus, when the Civic embarked on their realization of this piece with an orchestra at least twice that size (heavily augmented in the strings), I was a bit wary. Despite their size, I was surprised by the lush sound and tight ensemble playing of the strings throughout the symphony. It was only in the sprightly third movement minuet that the number of players burdened the performance. Regardless of the precision of the players, a large string contingent simply weighs down the light and witty character of a Haydn minuet.

Though a more properly balanced complement of players, the wind section suffered from some intonation and blending problems, both with each other and with the strings. A few rhythmic inconsistencies and a small ensemble crisis in the final movement complete the short list of drawbacks. Under Colnot's convincing stylistic interpretation, the overall performance of the Haydn was rather enjoyable, reflecting the talent of these young players and their amazing ability to cohere as a single unit after only such a short time together.

Regardless of the reason for the few inconsistencies in the Haydn, all the kinks had been worked out by the time the orchestra began the Shostakovich. Their performance of this masterful maiden voyage in the symphonic genre, though at times somewhat stiff, again confirmed the skill of the players in the orchestra, but also demonstrated their versatility and immense potential.

Shostakovich (1906-1975) composed his First Symphony as his graduation piece from the Leningrad Conservatory. Whereas Haydn's Symphony No. 92 is the work of a middle-aged man already well versed in this and many other genres, Shostakovich's work exudes the panache of a teenager ready to take the musical world by storm. With only a few successful compositions under his belt, the 18-year-old Shostakovich felt he was ready to tackle the daunting form of the symphony. Though he toiled over its composition (especially the final movement) for almost two years, Shostakovich knew he had struck out on a new path when, in May 1926, the symphony saw its wildly successful premiere.

The playful character that infects the majority of the work is evident in the very first notes in the muted trumpet and bassoon. This playfulness is contrasted, however, with moments of repose (such as the third movement) that feel both empty and despairing, yet seem to offer solace as well. In this regard, the playfulness of the first and second movements becomes more of a grotesqueness, a term often used to describe this symphony by its first critics and even by Shostakovich's own teacher! This ambiguity and juxtaposition would become a poignant feature in many of Shostakovich's later works, particularly as it relates to his political situation, but it is important to note that the corresponding musical language was already established at this early point

The Civic's excellent performance of the symphony was characterized by several exquisite orchestral solos, most notably by the principal cellist and principal bassoonist. Colnot commanded the orchestra forcefully, but never overwhelmingly, balancing the power of the full orchestral tutti with the tenderness of the most sparsely orchestrated sections. Though he was able to extract an ideal sense of melancholy in these sections, Colnot had difficulty creating a sense of true grotesqueness at times. The popular image of Shostakovich as a tormented, suppressed artist is one that supports such a lack of playfulness, but we must remember that this symphony predates the run-in with the Communist regime. In the end, the Civic offered an energetic, technically proficient, and musically exciting performance of this early Shostakovich work.

After a well-deserved standing ovation, the orchestra topped off an already spectacular evening with an encore: Shostakovich's Festive Overture. This short, flashy piece aptly reflected the energy of a successful concert in both the players and the audience.

It must be said again that the level of music making displayed by this group after such a short time together is phenomenal. Only time will tell what the orchestra has in store, but if Monday's performance is any sign, the future looks very bright.