Perhaps the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts to which to look forward the most this season will be those which Daniel Barenboim is scheduled to conduct but will withdraw from due to health issues.
Stepping in for Barenboim this past Friday were conductor David Robertson and pianist Orli Shaham. Robertson, who is set to become music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2005, brought an elegant vitality to the two Mozart pieces that opened the program.
First was Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A Major. This early work, written when Mozart was 17, is arguably one of the first in which the composer demonstrates his mature and characteristic voice. The small contingent of CSO string players succeeded in giving the piece the delicacy and sparkle it demands. Frequent dialogues ensued between the first and second violin sections seated on opposite sides of the stage. Robertson directed these dialogues as if balletically watching a game of ping-pong, further underscoring the antiphony.Second on the program was Mozart's aria Ch'io mi scordi di te?...Non temere, amato bene. The work combines elements of opera and concerto, as it is scored for soprano and piano soloists supported by orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham sang the song of a lover grieving at the thought of submitting to another. Though Shaham gave a fine performance, it was Orli Shaham at the piano who stole the show. Even while Rinat seemed transported by her sorrow, the entrance of a fluttering piano scale would immediately take the spotlight. Interestingly, Orli Shaham majored in history at Columbia University while studying piano at Julliard. Musicians at liberal arts colleges, take heart. The concert concluded with Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1. The work is better known as the Jeremiah Symphony due to the setting of text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the last movement. Bernstein wrote the symphony in 1943, the year he made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic. The symphony's theme, a crisis of faith, is one Bernstein continued to wrestle with for the rest of his life. With its massive orchestral forces and jazz-inspired moments, the Bernstein provided an excellent contrast to the Mozart. The full wind, brass, and percussion sections added a wide spectrum of sound absent from the first half of the concert. Among the more piquant of these additions was the timpani struck with a maraca.
Rinat Shaham returned to the stage as soloist in the Jeremiah Symphony. The performance was a reunion for Shaham and Robertson, who performed the Jeremiah Symphony together with the Israel Philharmonic in 2001. Her interpretation of Bernstein was more compelling than her Mozart; she conveyed the overwrought pathos of the former more eloquently than the restrained emotionality of the latter.
The concert's balance of classical refinement and 20th-Century drama was indicative of the Symphony's 2004-5 season. The running theme is Haydn vs. Bartok. Hopefully, however, not all concerts will run as short as this concert. The playing times for the three pieces were 28, 10, and 27 minutes, respectively. Sixty-five minutes of music hardly seems worth the high ticket prices most patrons must pay. At student rates, however, the music was worth the money.