Mälkki and Marsalis combine forces with the CSO

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) offered three performances of a fascinating concert earlier this month (the 15th, 16th, and 17th), featuring a female conductor, an African-American soloist, and a world premiere by a female composer. I attended the middle performance and found it splendid.

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki led the CSO in an eclectic program. The evening opened with Bizet’s first symphony, the Symphony in C Major, a work written when he was only 17 years old. It is not as polished as his later compositions, but is full of youthful vigor and appeal, which Mälkki emphasized throughout. The orchestra reacted well to her leadership, creating a jaunty feel in the first movement and drawing energetic contrasts. The Adagio had mezmerizing oboe work, creamy violins, and suitably restrained pizzicatos throughout the strings. This was followed by sunny, dance-like music in the third movement. The finale was performed at a wild and scurrying pace that never forfeited clarity. Mälkki and the musicians maintained a fun sense of urgency right up to the moment of the exciting conclusion.

Then Branford Marsalis took the stage to serve as soloists in Fauré’s Pavane, in an arrangement for solo soprano saxophone and orchestra. Although brief (about six minutes), the piece is unforgettably charming and Marsalis invested it with creamy, gorgeous tone. His blend with the orchestral winds was lovely, and the hushed moments were utterly beautiful.

This was followed by Marsalis taking up the alto saxophone to serve as soloist – along with CSO musicians Robert Kassinger on bass and Cynthia Yeh on vibraphone – for John Williams’s “Escapades,” music from the film “Catch Me if You Can.” The performance included orchestral members snapping their fingers and making shushing sounds to add to the jazzy feel.

Marsalis was completely at ease in the jazz and was well served by Kassinger and Yeh, who brought vibrant color and pizzazz to the performance. Mälkki drew out the impressionistic elements of the score, without sacrificing any of the joy in the sometimes madcap music.

After the intermission, the orchestra took on the world premiere of “Proceed, Moon” by Melinda Wagner, a piece commissioned by the CSO. The music was atmospheric – at times powerful, at other times gruff. It was full of spits and growls, coughs and sneers. In some moments it invited contemplation and at others it inspired confusion. It was given a serious and thoughtful reading, and included shimmering work by John Bruce Yeh on clarinet and gentle homage by Robert Chen on violin at the very end.

The concert concluded with Debussy’s colorful “Ibéria” from “Images” for Orchestra. It was picturesque and evoked the fragrances of Spain. The outer movements were rhythmically vigorous while the middle movement was gentle, lush, and languid. This 20-minute postcard brought the evening to a delightful close.

After the performance, the African American Network of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association hosted a postconcert Q&A session with Branford Marsalis in Buntrock Hall. It was well attended and listeners were treated to the thoughtful and fascinating comments of this great American saxophone player. One of his most interesting remarks was about he approaches all music, including classical. He was explaining that while the notes a performer must play are on the printed score, it is how you choose to play them that is at the heart of music-making. “The magic,” he said, “is in the sound of the note.”

The South Shore Opera Company (SSOC) of Chicago invited three baritones to headline its free summer concert on Sunday afternoon at the magnificent South Shore Cultural Center. Warnell Berry, Brandon Brown, and Denell Covington had the audience in their hands from the start, in a wide-ranging concert featuring opera excerpts, art songs, musical theater numbers, and more.

Covington was at his best with an attractive performance of “Sapphische Ode” by Brahms, although his penetrating low notes in “O Isis und Osiris” from the “Magic Flute” were powerful.

Brown was full of testosterone in a manly and commanding rendition of the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” It was slightly marred by the unpolished work of Keith Hampton at the piano.

Brown and Berry combined for a pretty and very touching performance of “Ave verum corpus,” music attributed to Pope Innocent VI and arranged by Karl Jenkins.

The highlight of the afternoon was Berry’s suave and thoroughly entertaining “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” from “Porgy and Bess.”

The next SSOCC event takes place Sun., Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. in the South Shore Cultural Center when they present “The Poet” by Steven M. Allen, a short opera looking at a snapshot in the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Next week, one of the stars of the SSOCC’s tremendous performance of last year’s “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom” takes part in a free concert in Hyde Park. Tenor Henry H. Pleas III, along with Carl Alexander, Matthew Truss, Vince Wallace, and Charles Thomas Hayes perform “In a Persian Garden: The Life of Liza Lehmann” at University Church (5655 S. University Ave.) on Saturday, July 8, at 7:30 p.m.