A concert for children of all ages: fun music at Symphony Center

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The English conductor, pianist and composer Bramwell Tovey made his Symphony Center debut last week leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program nicely designed to appeal to both adults and children. He has previously conducted the orchestra at Ravinia, but had never before taken up the baton in downtown Chicago. For those who loved his efforts, they have a chance to hear him again next month when he leads what is billed as a “Gershwin Spectacular.”

This was the first 2017 CSO performance at Symphony Center, as the orchestra has only recently returned to Chicago after a concert tour in Europe with music director Riccardo Muti.

The main work on the program, which I attended Saturday night (the second of two performances), was the complete Act II of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Like nearly all popular fairy tales, there are several versions of this story and before the orchestra played Tovey addressed the audience, outlining the entire story with emphasis on the part that was about to be played. His summary was cogent and witty and ingeniously designed to be interesting to both grown-ups as well as kids. As to the latter, it was a delight to see so many of them in the audience. The various members of the CSO organization responsible for programming did themselves and the future of classical music audiences a big favor with this concert and scored a coup with the highly amusing yet musically detailed remarks of Tovey. As he told the story of the Tchaikovsky’s ballet he was always quick to point out which parts of the orchestra would be highlighted and gave brief signposts of what to listen for.

And so having made the audience hungry to hear the music, Tovey and the CSO did not disappoint. The music had luster and Russian flair, and Tovey’s work early in his career as a conductor with several London ballet companies was in clear evidence. The dances at the beginning were full of bounce and clear rhythms.

There was intriguing mystery in the air as the harp announced the supernatural efforts of the Lilac Fairy, she who saved Aurora (the Sleeping Beauty) from death at the hands of an evil fairy one hundred years earlier. The Lilac Fairy offers the prince a vision of Aurora and the mystical moments were rendered with the kind of magic only Tchaikovsky could create.

The sound from the strings was smooth and glossy, the woodwinds were creamy in color and the brass had glorious shine.

This except from “The Sleeping Beauty” also offers individual players in the orchestra to make their mark and all of them did so with great élan. Principal flute Stéfan Ragnar Höskuldsson had a sound full of airy dignity. Principal cello John Sharp gave loving life to his section devoted to displaying the prince’s affection.

The biggest solo in the work is reserved for violin and concertmaster Robert Chen had beautifully executed high trills as well as offering musical thrills with the rapid passages.

Throughout the performance, I glanced from time to time at some of the children seated in the upper balcony. Dressed in their Sunday best and looking charming, I could observe many rapt faces. By the end of the Tchaikovsky, a few of the youngest appeared to have fallen into a gentle sleep and I thought what a glorious way for the little ones to end such a splendid evening at the symphony.

Tovey was glorious as well, giving the happy conclusion all the punch and flair it deserved.

The concert opened with the first ever performance by the CSO of William Walton’s “Orb and Sceptre,” Coronation March. The English composer was commissioned to write the work for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. This piece was new to me, but as it so happened, I attended the concert with a British friend who had heard it many times and knew the place the piece has in British cultural history.

It is a colorful work, accessible to all audiences, and the brash march music must surely have given the children in the audience an easy introduction to classical music. It has the flavor of a movie soundtrack but with regal trimmings and frisky moments.

Tovey lead the CSO in a performance full of warmth and festive fun.

This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s rightly famous “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:” Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell. Even to those well versed in this popular piece, it has a special charm as the music moves from one section of the orchestra to the next, introducing the varying sounds of a symphony orchestra.

The clarinets were particularly engaging, the bassoons blustery, and it was enjoyable hear an extended section devoted to the work of the double basses, who were stylish and resonant. From trumpets to violas, from percussion to bass tuba, the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were persuasive and under Tovey’s leadership found the musical heart of piece as well as its inherent joy.

For adults and children alike, it was a program of music that sent you home happy.

The “Gershwin Spectacular” takes place at Symphony Center on Fri., Mar. 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Sat., Mar. 25 at 1:30 p.m. Bramwell Tovey will conduct and serve as piano soloist. On the all-Gershwin program: Overture to “Strike Up the Band,” “A Foggy Day,” “Catfish Row,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “An American in Paris.” For tickets or further information, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000.