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Each element of mixed CSO program thrills in its own way



◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $19-$199

◆ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: November 30, 2012 8:21PM

Announced concert programs can raise expectations or concerns. The opportunity to hear a favorite or rarely performed work excites. Considering odd-sounding combinations of pieces can cause puzzlement.

Looking at this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program of late Dvorak, early Berlioz and very early Shostakovich, one might wonder what regular British guest conductor Mark Elder had in mind. The chance to hear English mezzo Alice Coote — a favorite at Lyric Opera and the Metropolitan — make her CSO debut was a draw, as was Elder’s proven history here with Dvorak and some Shostakovich. Otherwise, it seemed that the organizing principle was that each of the three works was about 30 minutes.

In the event, heard Thursday at Symphony Center, nothing disappointed and each work thrilled in its own way. Having endured the syrupy and wholly unidiomatic performance of Dvorak’s 1896 “The Golden Spinning Wheel” six years ago with another British guest conductor, Elder’s version has to count as a kind of contemporary premiere. (The CSO actually gave the piece, a sort of instrumental legend or tone poem based on Czech folklore, its U.S. premiere under Theodore Thomas just two months after its first performance.)

“Spinning Wheel” is one of five symphonic poems that were the last orchestral works of an internationally acclaimed composer, drawing on a lifetime of symphonic success. For this bloody story of love, murder, dismemberment, fraud, revived life and a singing spinning wheel (fortunately not needed as a literal accompaniment), each character is given a separate theme. It’s the Czech and Bohemian lilt throughout, the wonderful horn collective (associate principal Daniel Gingrich in the first chair) and the low brass choir of trombones and tuba that makes this work an enticing ride. Elder knows and loves these works and it showed.

“Les nuits d’ete” (“Summer Nights”), the pioneering 1840-41 Berlioz song cycle, has had many great interpretations here: Leontyne Price and Fritz Reiner in 1963 captured on a RCA recording, and just under five years ago with American mezzo Susan Graham and the penetrating Pierre Boulez. Where would Coote and Elder fit in? In a very fine and unexpected place of their own making. Coote is really more of a female alto or contralto; combining this deep sound with a very personal inner theatricality, she brought out a much darker side to the Theophile Gautier poems that too often are treated as if summer nights were only light places with finger sandwiches.

Elder was with her in every way, with an appropriate emphasis on the trio of horns and David McGill’s seductive bassoon. Coote was like a communal storyteller with such a comfort in the French language that many patrons ignored their program texts and just bathed in her sound. I can still hear her cries of “Reviens, Reviens” (“Come back, come back”) in “Absence” midway through the set of six songs. The ovation from the audience and the members of the orchestra was hearty, deserved and long.

As Elder indicated in brief and useful introductory remarks before the program’s last piece, the Dvorak interests us as the work of a master returned to his homeland in twilight. Shostakovich’s 1925 First Symphony, written as a student when the composer-to-be was 18, interests us in large part because we know where he went in the half-century career that followed. It is also a display of two important strains already established in the young composer: the comic, manic silent movie accompaniment-style of the first two movements and the mournful, lyrical inward work of the latter half.

In 1988, Leonard Bernstein daringly programmed and conducted it for the CSO, recorded the work and showed how far beyond mere juvenilia it is. Elder’s was a worthy successor performance with terrific solo work coming from two Russian-born players, oboe Eugene Izotov and acting timpani Vadim Karpinos as well as cello John Sharp and the muted trumpet of Christopher Martin.

All parts and their sum made for a great evening.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WMFT-FM (98.7).

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