A pleasing program of program music with the CSO

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Program music was the order of the day when guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night.

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This was followed by Béla Bartók’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin.” The story concerns a trio of hoodlums who use a pretty girl to lure men into their clutches that they might rob them. They plunder a mandarin and physically attack him. But, filled with desire for the girl, he resists their many attempts to murder him and only succumbs to his fate after she embraces him.

Because of its salacious story, the work was banned after its 1926 premiere in Cologne and its merit was only recognized after Bartók’s death.

The music has psychological depth which Salonen and the CSO laid out clearly, with brash sounds from the brass and eerie whistling from the winds. Bartók’s vivid musical depiction of sex and violence was frightening, with the climaxes large and taut. Notable were the performances of John Bruce Yeh (clarinet) and Jay Friedman (trombone).

After the intermission, the orchestra turned to tone poems by Sibelius. The Four Legends from the “Kalevala” are based on stories from the Finnish folk epic which has inspired not only numerous Finnish artists but international ones as well. (Both Longfellow and Tolkien, for instance, have written work influenced by the “Kalevala.”)

Salonen is one of the premier interpreters of fellow-Finn Sibelius, and his insight yielded splendid results.

“Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari” was taken at a brisk tempo with the woodwinds creating an airy arc of sound and the brass offering intriguing growls. Salonen drew beautiful, watery eddies from the violins as they traversed their whirling melodies.

There was a palpable coldness in “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela,” as the low strings established the forbidding nature of the Land of Death. The winds were dark and ominous, the brass created cold bursts and the violins issued icy tremolos.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” the most famous of all the Sibelius tone poems, depicts a river of black water with rapid currents on which a single swan majestically glides, singing into the night. Salonen opened with whispery softness and maintained a polished legato throughout. The phrasing featured lovely blooms which drew out the interesting rhythms. Scott Hostetler on English horn was elegant with the swan’s long, plaintive song.

“Lemminkäinen’s Return” was bold, with bouncing thrust. The performance was colorful and Salonen’s dynamics and tempi created the perfect homecoming for the handsome hero.

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Symphony Center Presents scored a home run last month when they hosted the Australian Chamber Orchestra led by Richard Tognetti, the group’s artistic director and first violinist.

The highlight of the program was the combination of Prokofiev’s suite from “Visions fugitives” followed without pause by Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings.

“Visions fugitives” (arranged for strings by Rudolf Barshai) comprises 20 short musical epigrams, some for strings, some for piano and some for both. Pianist Olli Mustonen was the soloist, eliciting exquisitely delicate sound, while the orchestra offered sleek and playful music.

The Shostakovich concerto was given a fresh, at times even unusual, interpretation by Mustonen. He drew sharp dynamic contrasts and consistently emphasized clear articulation, even in the second movement which is typically given a much smoother treatment. He eschewed sentimentality, which can spoil this work, instead relying on clarity of sound.

Christopher Martin, principal trumpet with the CSO, played gorgeously, giving the trumpet’s role its full due. The strings were restrained without losing any of the sheen or punch of the music.

The concert opened with “Two Pieces for Four Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos” by Shostakovich. In the first, there was luminous, almost ethereal sound in the outer sections, cushioning an impassioned, molten center. The second opened with fire and that was never extinguished, as the ensemble performed with artful passion and admirable rhythmic control.

Prokofiev’s “Five Melodies for Violin and Strings” (arranged by Joseph Swensen) were given star treatment. The first had long, lingering lines and the second was imbued with a sense of mystery. The slowly drifting sound of willowing cellos and basses characterized the third melody. The fourth was gently tangy with fizzy pizzicatos. The final section had memorable undulation interspersed with punchy cries.

The last work on the program was Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The initial strains were ferocious, giving way to a restful calm. The Funeral March had driving rhythm and Romance gauzy prettiness. There was a brilliant vibrancy in the Italiana Aria, astonishing softness in the Wiener Walzer and attention-grabbing enthusiasm in the Fugue.