Unusual Stucky Score Opens Jaap van Zweden’s Chicago Program

United StatesUnited States   Stucky, Mozart, and Mahler: David McGill (bassoon), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 3.12.2011 (JLZ)

Stucky: Rhapsodies for Orchestra
Mozart: Bassoon Concerto
Mahler: Symphony no. 1 in D major

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recent concerts under the direction of Jaap van Zweden brought a vibrant program to Symphony Center. A bold choice as an opening, Steven Stucky’s 2008 Rhapsodies for Orchestra offered an exuberant recent composition in which the atmospheric interplay of sound masses and tone colors give way to motifs that take shape as longer themes. An authoritative reading by van Zweden and the CSO reveled in the resulting sonorities.

While Stucky’s piece may lack the overt connections to Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, the distinct and well-articulated sounds that distinguished the Rhapsodies were immediately apparent. Bassoonist David McGill gave both virtuosic playing and outstanding expressiveness in this seminal work for the instrument. Like proverbial clockwork, the first movement was exemplary in its technical precision. The lyricism of the second conveyed a sense of spontaneity and seemed to end too soon. In the Finale, McGill highlighted the sense of contrast, concluding the first half of the program with panache.

Van Zweden dedicated the second half to Mahler’s First Symphony. The first movement shimmered from the start, as the pedal point of the introduction rang through the hall. As the motifs built up and led to the opening theme, the fine CSO ensemble gave it clear definition. In the second movement, van Zweden brought out the lyric qualities of the Trio, giving it a lingering Romantic quality, and using fluid tempos (given that tempo markings are relatively spare for many pages).

Yet with the slow funeral march, the opening tempo was a bit quick. While this prevented the march from becoming overly languid, it also detracted somewhat from the qualities that emerge when the tempo allows the listener to linger in Mahler’s sound world. This somewhat urgent reading also made it difficult to hear the instrumental quotation of the final song from the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

The Finale began just as the sonorities of the funeral march dissolved and here, again, van Zweden conveyed urgency and a welcome momentum. But in the lyrical themes, he adopted a slower, more thoughtful tempo that offered the release the composer intended. In the “Triumphal” section near the end, van Zweden accelerated, and unfortunately the speed undercut the majestic conclusion that some conductors find. The horns followed the marking in the score, rising in order to be heard, but when the trombone joined them, the sound seemed more brassy than necessary, with an uneven tone quality in several prominent pitches. It was an exciting Finale, but not as effective as it could be. Even so, the audience responded wildly to music that seemed to capture their imagination.

James L. Zychowicz