On December 6, 2018, in a concert to be repeated December 7th, 8th, and 11th at Symphony Center, English Conductor Edward Gardner, Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, made his subscription debut with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in a rich program featuring Canadian soprano Erin Wall. Gardner led with an aura of controlled exuberance, demonstrating a conscious control and sense of dynamism, drama and pacing.
– Richard Wagner Overture to Rienzi, 1838-1840
The overture to this early piece is, of course, based upon some of the themes in the opera, and features sequences of penitential prayer and military march, a prototype for Wagner. Opening with a slow movement announced in long-held trumpet calls, an impressive theme in the strings, Rienzi’s Prayer for the People, is soon introduced and repeated by CSO woodwinds and brasses with accompaniment in violins and violas; it fades into a clear-cut martial effect.
Gardner compelled Rienzi’s beautiful prayer to expand and take effect, while the war song sounded convincing. Next, the trumpet’s doubling of the prayer melody on its return resonated in strong and compelling fashion. Following a segment based on the theme of the slow movement which leads to the second subject, the reprise connects to a counter theme in the trombones before an intense Coda based on the battle ode closes the overture.
Gardner, formerly music director of the English National Opera, and an in-demand opera conductor throughout the world, handled the piece with a fine balance.
– Richard Strauss Four Last Songs, 1947-1948
The story of how Strauss, feeling his life drawing to a close, came upon a poem by Josef von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot (In the Evening Glow), and devoted himself to transforming it into an orchestral song as part of his Four Last Songs, is filled with pathos and a sense of fatalism. He followed this composition with Spring, September and Going to Sleep. The 4 sad and sentimental songs are imbued with Strauss’ musical stamp; they contain a wealth of lyrical color and, as performed by the CSO, provided a backdrop of surrounding calm and completeness for the soprano, with superlative supportive horn accompaniment throughout.
Erin Wall has been highly praised for her performances of Strauss; this evening, the beauty of her range and versatility of her expression captured both the melancholy nuances and filigreed beauty of these pieces without descending into over- emotionality. She projected a brightness of feeling coupled with a strong amplitude and clear diction that established control over the phrasing without sacrificing a fullness of tone.
– Carl Nielsen Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, (The Inextinguishable), 1916
Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony,The Inextinguishable, commences with a dynamic burst of energy and continues pell-mell for the next 36 minutes.
This night, the slow movement opened with a sensational shout, ultimately comforted by a heartrending violin solo before the piece’s motif- an almost obsessed repetitive theme- begins in the woodwinds and boosts the tension all the way to the finale.
The centerpiece of the rapid final movement is a spirited battle between 2 sets of timpani, separated to the extreme right and left back of the orchestra, opposite each other. The superb CSO percussionists, principal timpani David Herbert and assistant principal Vadim Karpinos literally duelled in competing tritone sets, in distinct dissonance from the rest of the Orchestra, producing a menacing effect.
When the finale arrived in an enormous ringing E major, Gardner drove on the drama; the sonic “booms” of timpani faded into a “glorioso” coda with stunning vitality. The CSO under Gardner delivered a piece of music that was thrilling, evocative of the trials and forces of life itself, leaving the audience fulfilled.
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