Asher Fisch’s classic Beethoven with the CSO

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Conductor Asher Fisch

While the Chicago Symphony Orchestra waits for some clear sign that all is going to be well with its ailing new music director, Riccardo Muti, CSO patrons – and critics – are having an unexpected adventure with stand-in conductors and unforeseen repertoire.

The first such replacement encounter, Oct. 7-9, brought the impressive CSO subscription debut of Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, who kept the program Muti had planned, including an excursion through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”) that might be characterized as radically classical.

This was a Beethoven Third more connected to Haydn than foretelling of Wagner. At brisk tempos that the composer surely would have endorsed, Fisch forged a clearly structured symphony illuminated by impeccably balanced strings, winds and brasses. This was no craggy monument to Romanticism but the brilliant, forward-looking work of a 33-year-old composer who was a child of his time.

From the decisive proclamation of those two mighty E-flat chords that announce this watershed symphony, it was evident that Fisch would not be gazing at the “Eroica” through a Wagnerian lens.  And just as the opening movement was impulsive, joyous, confident, the ensuing funereal centerpiece spoke with a grandeur that Fisch did not gild with egregious flourishes of tragedy. When he came to the towering fugue, the conductor again let the music’s internal drive shape the musical drama; and it was thrilling.

The scherzo, like the finale’s scintillating variations, flew with a lightness and agility that once more pointed back to Beethoven’s classical models. Fisch’s “Eroica” was whole cloth, exhilarating and thoroughly convincing. And the orchestra played for its guest maestro with an elegance, esprit and attention to detail that would have gratified Muti himself.

There was more to the Muti-designed program, but not much more of substance. Carlos Chavez’s 1936 “Sinfonia India” (Symphony No. 2), a single movement of 12 minutes’ duration, offered the CSO a chance to showcase its burnished ensemble in heady flights of syncopation.

Wagner’s “Centennial March,” commissioned by the CSO’s founding music director, Theodore Thomas, for a celebration of the American centenary in Philadelphia, is a pot-boiler of embarrassing banality. Indeed, Fisch charmed his audience with an artfully spoken disclaimer about this bit of Wagner that’s little known for good reason.

At least in the U.S., Asher Fisch seems to be little known, as well. Now we know there’s no good reason at all for that. Much admired in Europe as an opera conductor, Fisch will lead Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in November. A return engagement with the CSO is greatly to be wished.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.