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Jaap van Zweden returns gravitas to the CSO podium

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

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♦ 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

♦ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $10-$212

♦ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: July 2, 2013 8:06AM

After a month of concerts with novices and lesser names as conductors, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a serious figure on the podium Thursday night: Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony and Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestras.

Making a breathtaking last-minute sub debut 4½ years ago, van Zweden has gone from dependable pinch-hitter to principal guest conductor in all but name with a full festival of politically related music here next spring. Although I had some concerns with some of his recent performances, Thursday night was all about nuance, lyricism, support and depth. The Dutch-born conductor and former Amsterdam Concertgebouw concertmaster is a great asset to the larger CSO family.

He first demonstrated this Thursday by providing wholly sympathetic accompaniment to David Fray’s CSO debut as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466. The young Frenchman, who turned 32 last week, has a serious, even brooding, side to his playing that some might have found too dark and structural for this work, especially in the usually more lyrical slow movement. Beethoven himself, though, held this 1785 concerto uniquely dear and did so for a reason. This was a strong Beethovenian interpretation combined with both the lucidity and tone of the French style.

Sitting in a chair and crossing his arms when not playing, Fray underscored his often muscular conception by using perhaps the two most fiery cadenzas written for the soloist, an amalgam based on Austrian Paul Badura-Skoda’s in the opening allegro and the dramatic intervention of Swiss giant Edwin Fischer (Daniel Barenboim’s teacher) in the closing rondo. Where his compatriot Jean-Yves Thibaudet, last week’s brilliant CSO soloist, prefers colorful works, elegantly played, Fray offers more analytical investigations of challenging repertoire. His is a career to keep watching.

The CSO has owned Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra since the late 1940s, when a succession of great Budapest conductors who knew the composer — George Szell, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti — started giving important performances of this core 1943 masterwork. Pierre Boulez offered his own decidedly non-Hungarian take in concerts and a recording here in the 1990s. Van Zweden showed his real chops in the Bartok by starting with a clean, notes-on-the-page slate, reminding us what a beautiful piece this is, as well as a powerful one. He added several minutes to its normal length without ever weighing anything down and opened up the infamous satirical attack on Shostakovich in the “interrupted intermezzo” in a whole new comic, and warm, way.

Wind principals, the harp duo, the especially muted trumpet pair, and hard-stick timpani were especially responsive collaborators. Jonathan Gunn, acting principal clarinet in Cincinnati and husband of superb CSO piccolo Jennifer Gunn, was sitting in the chair that will be empty for at least a year, when, for family reasons, principal Stephen Williamson will give the New York Philharmonic a try. Gunn would appear to be an excellent candidate for major works next season.

The concert opened with “Liquid Interface,” a 2006-2007 piece by Mead co-composer-in-residence Mason Bates, who assumed his customary place at the back of the orchestra with his electronica set-up. Perhaps when it was written for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, it was something more than a first draft of his much more effective “Alternative Energy,” successfully premiered and toured by Riccardo Muti and the CSO in 2012. It’s not much more than that now.

Ostensibly following water through four obvious movements and sets of recorded sounds, the piece is not at the top of the Bates catalog and left little impression. Van Zweden kept the acoustic instruments going with care and click-track efficiency. One is more hopeful about a brand-new Bates work, “Difficult Bamboo,” for chamber ensemble and percussion, that will have its world premiere Monday night in a MusicNow concert at the Harris Theater.

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

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