Review Salonen sparkles in Chicago visit

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Esa-Pekka Salonen brought the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra to Chicago last week for just one concert Wednesday night featuring two splendidly rendered masterworks.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. After a big opening attack, Salonen conducted with restraint, skillfully drawing out the gracious elements of the score. The phrasing offered lots of light and air, the tempo changes were surefooted and the dynanics were well drawn. Salonen and the orchestra made the big moments memorable, with expansive sound and blustery energy.

After the intermission, the Philharmonia tackled the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz. Salonen treated the “Dreams — Passions” part of the symphony with careful development, expertly telling the story of a young musician beset by passions (joy, fury, jealousy, tenderness, to name just a few delineated by Berlioz in his own notes to the work) for a young woman who has become his idée fixe.

“A Ball” had good rhythmic bounce as well as a nice touch of craziness at the end. The bucolic music of the third section was suitably amiable, while the “March to the Scaffold”, with its intense pounding, was downright frightening. The final section, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” was bursting with demonic energy and portent.
The audience reaction was sustained, leading to an encore: the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” It was polished and thrilling.

***

This year’s Howard Mayer Brown International Music Series got underway Friday night as University of Chicago Presents brought the Dutch early music ensemble Capella Pratensis to Rockefeller Chapel.

Their program, “Sounds of Salvation: Music for a 15th-century Bruges Merchant,” featured the Mass for St. Donatian by the Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht. The eight singers of Cappella Pratensis performed with evident commitment as well as stunning beauty. It was a nice touch that the performance of this work, which was first sung in 1487, was in the gorgeous chapel at Rockefeller.

Cappella Pratensis has been working with musicologist M. Jennifer Bloxam since 2005, documenting this mass. So it was downright astonishing that after all this time the first half of the night’s program — Bloxam lecturing on the mass — was so very poorly done. The lights were dimmed in order to facilitate a slide show, but the number of images were remarkably small, unelucidating and at times purely generic (lovely scenes of Bruges). A complicated floor plan of the church where the mass was first performed was exhibited, with Professor Bloxam telling us that there was a private chapel in there somewhere, but I’m in no way enlightened as to its actual location. The mass was organized and paid for by a wealthy widow, and the account of this woman seemed remarkably incurious. Bloxam appeared to take for granted that the widow was everything good, without considering that perhaps her money was spent with this particular image in mind.

To be fair, it is hard to offer a definitive judgment of the lecture half of the event, as clearly no sound check was done in advance, and Bloxam was incredibly difficult to hear. Some attending the concert said they could make out nothing at all of what she said.

***

The Chicago Ensemble opened its 2012-13 season at I-House the first Sunday of this month with a nicely crafted program centering on vocal music.

The highlight of the concert was Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” sung by Michelle Areyzaga with Chicago Ensemble artistic director Gerald Rizzer on piano. Areyzaga caressed the lulling lines of text, creating a calm yet vivid portrait of a summer evening. She sang with a light yet clear-toned voice, completely avoiding an annoying or stilting affect. Rizzer’s support was strong without being overpowering.

Areyzaga was also charming in Three Vocalises by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The first, “Prelude,” was at times almost ethereal, and in “Scherzo” and “Quasi menuetto” the folk song elements were clearly highlighted.
The concert opened with Six German Songs by Ludwig Spohr for soprano, clarinet and piano. Areyzaga and clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya took turns twittering in a pleasing way, with Rizzer keeping things grounded.

Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and piano (premiered by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein) was engaging, with Garcia-Montoya particularly haunting and in the “Romanza.” The concluding movement was buoyant and stylish.
Two Pieces by Egon Wellesz for clarinet and piano were given serious treatment, to round out the afternoon.