On November 1, 2018, after a 12 year absence, Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Berlin and former Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Daniel Barenboim returned to Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago to conduct the CSO in subscription concerts featuring Bedrich Smetana’s iconic set of tone poems, Má vlast. This evening, CSO guest second clarinet was Chicago-based clarinetist Teresa Reilly; Assistant Principal Clarinet John Bruce Yeh played Principal Clarinet. Additional performances of this program are to be held November 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
Má vlast (My Country),1874-1879, was designed by Smetana in six symphonic poems as a series of purely orchestral historical narratives and musical impressions of natural beauty celebrating his beloved homeland, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. In a horrifying twist of fate, in the midst of composing the first segment, Vyšerad, (The High Castle), depicting an ancient citadel near Prague, he suffered a complete loss of hearing! The composer nonetheless completed the remainder of the orchestral works, the first 4 in quick succession. The entire cycle is musically tied together by motifs introduced in Vyšerad, itself substantially built around a central rhythmic “tattoo” theme.
The course of the Vltava (The Moldau) river forms the second and most popular segment; both of the first 2 pastoral poems are succeeded by Šárka, a savage tale of revenge, anger, and deception told in dramatic episodes. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields begins with a huge tutti; the Orchestra is turned into a veritable pipe organ that gradually subsides before returning to a polka.
The latter 2 segments, Tábor, named for a stronghold, and Blaník, named for a mountain, seem to fit together musically. Tábor begins softly with the “tattoo” beat in the horns followed by a clarinet/bassoon chorale that develops into a driven sequence of multiple melodies. Blaník takes up the tattoo rhythm before tapering into a strongly rhythmic counterpoint, finally yielding to a calm wing chorale before subsiding into a truly restful peace achieved by solo winds over gently droning strings.
Beginning in December 2016, Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra toured Europe with Má Vlast in preparation for the opening concert of the upcoming spring’s prestigious Prague Spring International Festival, in May 2017. The following December, he led the Staatskapelle Berlin in performances of Má vlast on successive nights at the Philharmonie Berlin and the Konzerthaus Berlin.
Last night, Barenboim came “home” to Symphony Center, leading the CSO in a strong, dynamic, grand, oft-joyous Má vlast. Sans score, the distinguished conductor demonstrated an over-arching comprehension of the entire colorful masterwork, while delineating each movement or “poem” in a distinct, clear progression. The piece was emotionally stirring, filled with contrast and ingenuity. The appearance of the Vyšehrad theme throughout the performance formed a consistent and vivid thread; indeed, the final materialization of this theme was a homecoming of it’s own after the tour through the history and beauty of Bohemia.
Barenboim, with great confidence, and sweeping, eloquent gestures, called forth swift tempi, varied dynamics, and transparent colors from the immediately responsive CSO, avoiding any feeling of forced aggrandizement. Vyšerad was generated with plenty of energy, especially in the animated mid-section filled with expressively phrased horns after opening with glorious double harps in a lyrically lovely melody. One could easily visualize the movement of waters in Vltava and the colorful folk polka, as the murmuring woodwinds, one of the CSO’s great sections, displayed considerable animation. Šárka, opening dramatically, kept up the momentum, with a lot of power from the brass- in particular the trombones- in the intense coda. Barenboim and the CSO captivated with the dancing center in From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves, keeping Tábor sure and steady, and delivering a sense of sustained excitement throughout Blaník.
The audience at Symphony Center gave Barenboim a standing ovation the moment he appeared, vociferously welcoming him back to the podium. Similarly strong applause followed the rich, deeply satisfying concert.
Barenboim returns to the podium to lead the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a Symphony Center Presents (SCP) special concert on November 5, 2018 launching a multi-city U.S. tour featuring Iranian cellist Kian Soltani and Israeli violist Miriam Manasherov as soloists in Strauss’s Don Quixote and also performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
For information and tickets to all the fine programming of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.cso.org
All photos by Todd Rosenberg