Sunday at the Symphony

Marek Janowski guest conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over the weekend in a program that included Weber, Beethoven, and Wagner.  Sunday’s was the final performance of the run, and I decided to check it out on a whim, securing an upper balcony seat around noon for the 3 pm show.  There was a pre-concert lecture at 2 pm, and I decided to take that in as well.

William White was the lecturer, a young composer and conductor based in Portland.  His talk opened with a promise that the program’s 19th century Germanic music would be a treat, with works composed from 1806 (Beethoven’s 4th Symphony) to 1867 (Preludes to Wagner’s comic opera Die Meisterninger von Nurnberg).  White seemed tickled by the notion that it would have been possible for a person to have attended both the premieres of the Symphony and the premier of Wagner’s Opera, though he granted it would have been a rare individual who had managed to do it.

The talk gave life to the pieces, contextualizing them historically and musically.  White tied the Fourth symphony, which Beethoven wrote during the time he was also composing the far more well-known Fifth, to it’s famous successor by picking out some of the common themes on the piano.  He also pointed out that Wagner’s opera Tannhauser contains an overture for bassoon that is one of the trickiest passages for the instrument; the passage is almost always a part of symphony auditions.  He mimicked the melody with his own voice, and said that unlike the human voice and, say, flutists, bassoonists do not double-tongue, making the two-and-a-half bar stretch exceptionally challenging for the double-reed instrument.

The concert opened with Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe, an opera that Philliip Huscher’s program notes indicate was not a hit in its time.  The story was weaker than the music, which Robert Schumann thought to be “heart’s blood, the noblest that [Weber] had.”  Operatic overtures preview the music to come in the opera, and the variety and power of the music on display in Euryanthe’s Overture indicate the music of the whole would be worthwhile.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is lyrical and pretty, though it’s perhaps the least well known of his bunch of symphonies.  I was especially interested in the many flute passages – scored for a single flute, the instrument gets many moments in the sun.  Principal Stefan Ragnar held the chair for the Beethoven Symphony, though he was replaced by two others on flute for the second half of the show.

After intermission it was all Wagner.  The Overture and Venusberg Music from his opera Tannhauser was captivating and powerful, completing the journey from classical to romantic music traversed by the Orchestra’s Sunday program.  Wagner couldn’t stop working on the Opera, revising it from its premiere in 1845 even through the 1870s.  The music ranges from orderly to fantastical to triumphant.  The preludes from Act 3 then Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg rounded out the show.  A diverse assembly of percussion marks shifts in mood and style throughout these preludes.  The concert finished with a full stage of musicians, complete with harp, to bring the house down.

I knew nothing of Marek Janowski, the guest conductor, prior to this concert.  He’s been around for a very long time, his illustrious career primarily unfolding in Europe.  He hasn’t conducted the CSO since 1991, when he also conducted music from Die Meistersinger.  I haven’t before seen a symphony performance where the conductor used no music whatsoever – his command of the repertoire is clearly beyond extraordinary.

Thanks for reading.


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