Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers boisterous, exciting music – including a world premiere

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

French composer Pascal Dusapin was in Chicago in May for the world premiere of his new cello concerto, “Outscape.” It was written for American cellist Alisa Weilerstein who gave the first performance the final Thursday of last month, just three days before the composer’s 61st birthday. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Oper Stuttgart, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra together commissioned this new work, which was begun in 2014 and completed last year. Leading the CSO was guest conductor Cristian Macelaru, the 2012 winner of the Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award.

Clocking in at just under half an hour, “Outscape” is an interesting piece that tumbles back and forth between cold stasis and almost manic intensity. It opened with Weilerstein’s cello ruminating with cool sound over a long and low repeated C-sharp. The orchestra entered the work starting with intriguing sound from the bass clarinet; then there were flutes and the work slowly gained momentum.

Weilerstein brought gorgeous tone and offered a committed performance with fire and brimstone in the tricky rapid passages. She displayed a remarkable ability to execute the big as well as the small dynamic contrasts. As the piece progressed, the tempo became punishingly fast. The composer explains this with interesting notes in the score. He writes near the middle, “It is not that the tempo is a bit extreme, it is that the situation has become so.” And later in the score he acknowledges, “Yes, I know it is very fast.”

Macelaru drew out the color and texture in the big orchestral sections and presided over a wide array of percussive sounds punctuating the piece throughout. (Besides timpani, the score calls for 15 different percussion instruments.)

The work ends as it begins: with quiet strains from the cello, which Weilerstein made sound calm and a little sad. She was all smiles in her lovely, fire engine red gown with big skirt as the audience offered vigorous applause. She and Macelaru welcomed Dusapin to the stage and the composer’s face clearly showed that he felt the performance was splendidly done.

The biggest work on the program was Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Completed in 1919, it was first performed by the CSO shortly after the world premiere in London. It’s been a hit with audiences since that first performance and Macelaru was particularly adept with the big, bold, boisterous moments.

“Mars” had thunderous volume as Symphony Center was filled with the blare of “the Bringer of War.” The brass sounded positively threatening and the entire orchestra showed lots of muscle. Macelaru found the urgency in the music and created huge, sweeping phrases.

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” was suitably soothing and the harps, celesta and flutes were particularly skillful in achieving a peaceful atmosphere. There could have been more nuance in the direction, but the sound was nonetheless attractive.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” was effectively fleet and light. The expansive “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” unfolded amiably. The central melody (which Holst later turned into a patriotic anthem) had soaring heft.

The low rumbling in “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” was spot on and the loud, dramatic elements were exciting. “Uranus, the Magician” was characterized by pleasing bounce.

The final movement (Pluto had not yet been discovered when Holst wrote “The Planets”), “Neptune, the Mystic,” was beautifully mysterious and the off-stage women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus had glorious, ethereal sound.

The concert opened with the first-ever performance by the CSO of Jacques Ibert’s “Bacchanale.” The short, ten-minute work was crisp in the opening and featured shining playing from the brass. Macelaru rightly emphasized the work’s insistent rhythmic pulses and he gloried in the celebratory nature of the music.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra closes out its 2015-16 season with two sets of concerts led by music director Riccardo Muti. On Jun. 16, 17, 18, and 21 Julia Fischer will be the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Also on the program is the Serenade by Brahms. The last concerts of the season, on Jun. 23, 25, and 26, are all-Bruckner, with the Te Deum and Symphony No. 9. The latter features soloists Erin Wall, ?Okka von der Damerau, Steve Davislim, and Christof Fischesser as well as the Chicago Symphony Chorus. All these concerts take place at Symphony Center. For more information, visit cso.org.