Updated: April 15, 2013 10:33PM
Wireless communication meant that the world was too much with many of us, late and soon, on Sunday at Orchestra Hall. Just before the much-anticipated Dresden Staatskapelle concert and the long-awaited return to Chicago of its new principal conductor Christian Thielemann, e-mail brought news of the death the night before of trumpet legend Adolph “Bud” Herseth, 91, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra fixture over six decades.
Then, by intermission, Twitter carried word from the London Symphony Orchestra that the widely revered Colin Davis, laureate conductor of the Dresdeners, had just died at 85. That both men were true professionals and that the Staatskapelle is in its 464th(!) year of performing certainly underscored how the show goes on. Orchestras are like that. A name holds and despite the regular turnover and the passage of time, traditions continue and an identity persists.
In the case of Dresden, that identity was preserved in the last century in a complex tradeoff that found the city and its orchestra both behind the Iron Curtain and in a topographical “valley of the blind” without access to West German broadcast television and popular culture. Its rich, deep and warm string sound remains unique, its highly personalized wind sound — especially in its pinched just right oboes — and gentle horns are welcome markers. And its major daily work as an opera orchestra gives it a flexibility that when combined with the relative youth of its current roster and the evident energy of those players make them a conductor’s dream.
Thielemann, who turned 54 this month, has had his battles in previous positions at the former West Berlin Deutsche Oper and the Munich Philharmonic. But he told me in an interview Friday that he knew as early as his first guest conducting with Dresden in 2003 “that this could be a real home for me.” When things ended with Munich, and the Staatskapelle and its previous conductor Fabio Luisi split unhappily, Thielemann and Dresden were ready to start together this season. The position also gives him a smaller and quiet base, away from the daily politics of Bayreuth and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, whose calendars hold him for many weeks each year. And, through a set of totally unforeseen events, the Thielemann-Dresden team is now the center of the spring Salzburg Easter Festival, abandoned by Berlin after almost 40 years. Their first run, last month, was a box office and critical success.
In the 1990s, it looked as if the United States, and especially Chicago and New York, would be a major part of Thielemann’s professional life. Two subscription weeks with the CSO and a “Meistersinger” at Lyric were electrifying, as were three different Richard Strauss productions at the Metropolitan Opera. But personal and political issues arose and Thielemann’s career in Germany (he is a native and lifelong Berliner) and Austria took off dramatically. It was fitting that this return to North America and first trip here with Dresden started in Chicago.
An all-Brahms program let all parts of this new team show their chops. Virtuosity matched with warmth; energy was coupled with detail. Watching the trumpets in the “Academic Festival” Overture sitting in Herseth’s old seats had both an eerie and invigorating quality. The great D Major Violin Concerto brought a third eloquent partner, Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, for as fine a live performance of the work that I can recall. Her playing arose from the orchestra sound and was never imposed upon it. She had a combination of strength and intimacy that brought David Oistrakh to mind. That she plays a 1715 Stradivarius that belonged to Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee and first performer of the concerto, added yet another line of underscoring to the pervasive sense of continuity. There was constant listening and communication between soloist, conductor and orchestra and details, and Romantic emphases often brushed past emerged clearly. Even the odd little Busoni cadenza, a dialogue with timpanist Thomas Kaeppler, fit perfectly. A 1990s alumna of Ravinia’s Steans Institute (then using her given name, Elisabeth), Batiashvili made her CSO debut in Highland Park 13 years ago with Christoph Eschenbach. She needs to be a part of our lives here again.
At times the E Minor Fourth Symphony seemed to have almost too much energy. But Thielemann and his crew made this driving version cohere and even gave one of the most convincing, well-delineated, Andante moderato movements imaginable. What occasional raggedness there was felt more like celebration and personality. The large audience went fairly wild and an obviously very happy Thielemann bounded back on to the stage and with a large grin called up a spirited encore of the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” It’s a shame that we did not also get the second program of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony that Carnegie Hall will have later this week. But it was good to see these artists in top form here, so well connected with each other, and reminding us, through that great optimist Brahms, that life rolls on.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).