CHICAGO — What a strange, strange evening. The power went out on the night of April 6 at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall about an hour before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert was supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m., and it was not clear that the concert would happen at all. Audience members were finally allowed to take their seats, using the limited emergency lighting provided by the hall’s generator, but the stage was still in darkness.
Around 7:40 p.m., Jeff Alexander, the orchestra’s president, appeared onstage and, using a megaphone, announced that workers from the power company were on site and that the concert would be delayed but go on. The regular lights came on soon thereafter, but the concert did not begin until around 8:25. There was to be one final glitch: Because the performance started so late, Alexander returned to the stage after intermission to say that one of the selections on the second half was being dropped (possibly to avoid the orchestra going into costly overtime), a blow to those looking forward to the entirety of an adventurous program — more on all that later.
But there were a couple of consolations for all these hitches. First off, the Chicago Symphony musicians seemed unfazed, playing what remained of the program with a dialed-in focus. And for the audience members who lost patience with the delays and bailed before the performance began or felt shortchanged by the reduced program, there was what seemed like fair compensation. Alexander made clear that anyone holding a ticket for the evening could exchange it for either another performance of this program, which was set to be repeated April 7, 8, and 11, or any other concert remaining in the orchestra’s current season.
Ultimately, a performance did take place, and it still had plenty to offer, notably the exciting, if bafflingly belated, CSO debut of English guest conductor Thomas Adès, one of the world’s most accomplished living composers. Many composers lead occasional performances of their works, but most don’t pursue conducting in any kind of serious way. There have been, however, obvious exceptions going all the way back to Felix Mendelssohn, who famously helped revive interest in J.S. Bach’s music by leading performances of works like the St. Matthew Passion. Among today’s examples of composer-conductors, none is more renowned than Esa-Pekka Salonen, who splits his time more or less equally between the two pursuits and has been equally successful at both.
Although Adès is best known as a composer and does not hold any conducting posts like Salonen, he nonetheless takes the podium frequently in Europe and North America and has earned considerable respect for his baton. He regularly leads symphonic ensembles ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Holland and has helmed productions with companies like the Royal Opera House, Zurich Opera, and Metropolitan Opera. It was possible, even with the truncated program on this occasion, to see why his conducting has found such favor with these organizations.
First deserving discussion was the commendably unexpected and unconventional program itself, exactly the kind of line-up the Chicago Symphony needs to present more often. It was scheduled to bring together the orchestra’s first performance of Adès’ Piano Concerto and three works from the 19th and 20th centuries that are hardly standard repertoire. (Unfortunately, Jean Sibelius’ Prelude and Suite No. 1 from The Tempest, which the Chicago Symphony had performed previously just once, in 1946, was dropped due to the power-failure delay.) In addition to the lack of any repertoire stalwarts on this program, it was daring in another way as well: All of these works have a dark bent. There was no offering that could be described as genial, upbeat, or heroic — pick your happy adjective.
In addition, there were some interesting inter-connections and resonances among these pieces. The work by Sibelius and the evening’s closer, Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, were written in a decade or so stretch in the 1910s and ‘20s, and both reflect upheavals sweeping through classical music at that time. It would have been great to compare and contrast them side by side. At the same time, all but one of these works involved dramatic narrative, including Sibelius’ piece tied to Shakespeare’s play and another drawing on the legend of Faust and Mephistopheles. Hearing them on the same problem gave each new context and allowed them to be considered together in fresh ways.
The evening’s highlight arguably was Adès’ Piano Concerto, which the Boston Symphony Orchestra debuted in 2019 with soloist Kirill Gerstein, who returned to the piece for this set of performances. The concerto is in many ways a kind of an anti-concerto, because it defies typical expectations of such a work in multiple ways. Nothing is straightforward. Everything sounds a bit off-kilter and even jumbled. For starters, there is little in the way of the expected dialogue between the soloist and orchestra, with its swelling, sometimes bleating brass, jabbing pizzicatos, and insistent percussion. Instead, the piano and orchestra often ignore each other and sometimes even clash. At one point in the first movement, the piano has a cadenza, and the solo lines seem to bizarrely interrupt and collide with themselves. Again, that jumbled feeling, and, yet it all works in its way. Somehow in all this seeming disorganization, Adès finds organization and the concerto comes together as an unlikely, eye(ear)-opening whole.
Adès is well known for his inventive orchestrations, and there are many odd and enticing instrumental colors and combinations in the Piano Concerto. Indeed, there were times when I was scanning the orchestra and wondering how certain sounds were even being produced. One of Adès’ most startling and intoxicating instrumental blends came in the second movement with his pairing of the piano with four small tuned gongs, producing penetrating and other-otherworldly harmonies that wavered in and out with the intersecting rhythms, changing meters and rubato phrasing that Adès used here and throughout much of the work.
There is no real sense of resolution, and Adès clearly didn’t want one. This masterful concerto just ends after a little more than 20 minutes, leaving listeners a bit breathless. It’s a wonderful, thrilling ride, especially in the hands of this top-flight orchestra, which delivered a suitably raw, raucous performance with Adès prodding and urging the musicians forward with his vigorous, physical brand of conducting. The concerto requires the soloist to put on a life jacket and ride the musical rapids. Getting through it without the boat overturning is already a success given the technical challenges of this work with its cascading, clashing passages, but Gerstein did more than that. He infused his playing with the restlessness and bristling energy this part demands while still maintaining a sense of control and calm.
The evening opened with Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, one of two originally paired works inspired by Nikolaus Lenau’s poetic take on the Faustian legend. This short work, composed in 1860, depicts Mephistopheles playing the fiddle in a village tavern as Faust engages in a wild dance with a local woman. The piece starts out in a sprightly fashion as the devil tunes his instrument, but it quickly becomes more frenzied, ultimately building to an almost manic climax. Along the way are a few slower, calmer episodes, including one featuring the cellos in perhaps the most waltz-like passage in the piece, however slightly skewed and off-balance it is. Just as he did with his own Piano Concerto, Adès threw himself into this music, bringing an edginess and compelling drive to the work.
The evening ended with Taras Bulba, which is based on a historical novel by Nikolai Gogol about a father and two sons who join the Cossacks’ war with the Poles in the early 17th century. Janáček, probably best known as an opera composer, had no trouble creating instrumental dramas around three episodes from the book. Written 1915-18, the folk-flavored music exudes a decidedly modern, avant-garde feel, from the distorted harmonies to the angry chimes and insistent, slicing strings. The work opens with the forlorn sound of the English horn (played by the always expressive Scott Hostetler), and that melancholic mood pervades the score. Much as they did in the other works, Adès and the orchestra accentuated the moody contrasts and imbued the piece with bite and intensity.
Editor’s Note: Adès will make an immediate, unscheduled return to the CSO podium April 13-15, standing in for conductor Mikko Franck, who has been sidelined by a knee injury.