On December 12, 2019, Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck returned to Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, to lead The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Polish-Canadian Guest Pianist Jan Lisiecki in a concert featuring a piece composed by former CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates in honor of Maestro Honeck’s 60th birthday, which fell in September, 2018.
Included in the program were a piano concerto by Mozart, a polka by Josef Strauss and 6 pieces by Johann Strauss, Jr. consisting of an operetta overture, a waltz and 4 polkas. The lively concert, containing several recognizable tunes, with encores both by the soloist and the Orchestra, is to be repeated on December 13th and 14th.
Honeck, Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is an exceptionally confident, gifted, and viscerally articulate conductor, in complete control and elegant; he radiates joy as well as composure and is a Chicago audience favorite.
CSO Flute/Piccolo Jennifer Gunn played principal flute for all the pieces on this week’s program. Guest musicians in the flute section were Alyce Johnson of Lyric Opera Orchestra and John Thorne, Associate Professor of Flute at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.
- Mason Bates Resurrexit, 2018
The concert began with a piece described by its composer, currently resident composer for the Kennedy Center, as containing a “spiritual opener” combined with a more meditative overall development. The symbolic use of a resurrection theme is made mysterious with “Middle Eastern scales and exotic sonorities”, and updated with a deal of percussive effects throughout, from tinkling crystalline tones to crashing cymbals. These included a semantron instrument played by principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, and made by Stage Manager Chris Lewis from a plank of Maple wood suspended from one of the Orchestra’s gong racks. The semantron, traditionally used to call monks to prayer, produces a dry knocking sound.
This exhilarating and exciting piece, played with exactitude, created a sense of modern mysticism as it opened with shimmering strings, the sighings of wind instruments descending, followed by a lamenting wail from horn, trombone, and bassoon. As the tempo rises, and the strings rush forward, the great CSO brass delivered a strong fanfare, and Honeck brought the piece to a stirring, elegiac close.
Guest keyboardist for this piece was St. Louis-based pianist Kelly Karamanov.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467, 1785
Known as one of the most technically demanding of the composer’s concerti, this strong, important piece was played with consummate skill by Lisiecki, who effectively conjured the distinctly different moods of the three movements. The first was joyfully enthusiastic, the second intricately meditative, the third a vivid, expressive romp.
Lisiedcki jumped into the Concerto with clearly enunciated lines, sometimes delicate, sometimes firm, ending in an extended smooth trill. For such a young artist, he exhibits extraordinary calm and grace. The grand first movement found soloist and Orchestra playing seamlessly together, with his spot-on precise concentration working in tandem with the sharp overall lilt and lift of the CSO. In the famous (think Elvira Madigan) second movement, pianist and Orchestra produced finely wrought modulations of color, tempo, and volume, segueing into a brisk and exuberant finale.
- In encore, Frederic Chopin Nocturne in C# Minor Op. Posth, 1830
This brief, exquisite piece has become familiar in the popular culture because it appears both at the beginning and end of the movie The Pianist. History tells us that the Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp played this piece for a Nazi concentration camp commandant; it impressed him enough that he let her live. After a soft, sad introduction, a haunting, delicately lovely melody lingers on the ears- and in the heart.
The second half of the program took the audience on a Viennese journey. Two polkas by Josef Strauss (one in encore) were performed amid a wealth of polkas and other pieces by Johann Strauss, Jr. The music is rich, vivid, yet lighthearted and delicious. A world of colorful and charming percussive effects were deployed, to the great delight of the audience. The Maestro and Orchestra joined in the vibrant presentation with graceful gestures and gently amused smiles.
- Johann Strauss, Jr. Overture to The Gypsy Baron, 1885
This piece is set in the “Hungarian-Danube” world, and is filled with many colorful references, including the sound of spurs, imparting the whole with a sense of the exotic. There is a waltzing tune included before the highly rhythmic conclusion.
- Josef Strauss The Dragonfly Polka, Op. 204, 1866
Josef Strauss, a dance composer, is especially well known for waltzes and polkas. The Dragonfly is actually a polka mazurka, quite popular in its day, sounding like a relaxed form of waltz. The opening strands of this melodic piece call to mind the flight of a dragonfly as it hovers and skims about.
- Johann Strauss, Jr. Furioso Polka, Op. 260, 1861
The Furioso Polka is a quick “galloping” dance, which lent itself to be “called out” in different time signatures and thus performed with more or less exertion. It’s been described as “rambunctious” and “swaggering”.
- Johann Strauss, Jr. Voices of Spring Waltz, Op. 410, 1883
The waltz is, of course, the very emblem of Viennese popular classical music, and Johann Strauss II has been long considered one of Austria’s great musical geniuses, especially respected as the “Waltz King”; he composed 150 examples! Voices of Spring is an orchestral work that has been featured in many films and television show themes, including The Three Stooges. It’s a rapturous, anything-but-stodgy delight.
- Johann Strauss, Jr. On the Hunt Polka, Op. 373, 1875
On the Hunt is taken from Strauss’ three-act operetta Cagliostro in Vienna and based on the intriguing life of the real Count Alessandro Cagliostro, an occultist, alchemist, and allegedly all-around fraud. The operetta itself has nothing to do with hunting, but contributed musical themes which Strauss “borrowed” and transformed into this rapid polka, replete with brass fanfares and a gunshot!
- Johann Strauss, Jr. In Krapfen’s Woods Polka, Op. 336, 1889
The Krapfenwald is a section of the Vienna Woods, apparently filled with cuckoos and other birds, who trill, bill and coo cunningly- and hilariously- in this truly adorable confection. Kudos to Assistant Timpani Vadim Karpinos, who displayed- in this piece as well as in the Orchestra’s encore- a remarkable proclivity for physical comedy, including, of course, great timing!
- Johann Strauss, Jr. Thunder and Lightning Polka, Op. 324, 1868
The percussion section of the CSO were in full vibrant virtuoso force throughout the entire concert and in this little gem, particularly, they played enthusiastically. The whole piece is fast paced in tempo, actually thrilling, even mood-elevating! The sense of thunder and lightning is crafted with much use of cymbals and drums; most impressive!
- In encore, Josef Strauss Fireproof Polka, 1869
In this piece, the CSO really let its hair down! The Fireproof Polka was composed by Josef Strauss as a commission by the Wertheim safe manufacturing company that marketed its designs as fireproof. Wertheim even sometimes demonstrated that claim by putting safes in the midst of public bonfires. In this explosive (!) piece, Assistant Principal Timpanist Vadim Karpinos, exhibiting a droll élan, wheeled an anvil out in front of Honeck, wiped it off with a Green Bay Packers jersey which he then discarded on the floor, more reverently handed the Maestro a Bears quarterback’s jersey (which was carefully set aside) and struck the anvil repeatedly-and resoundingly!
For information and tickets to all the great programming of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.cso.org
All photos by Anne Ryan.