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Rivers run through the CSO’s stellar program

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

♦ Symphony Center,
220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $24-$212

♦ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: June 19, 2013 6:11AM

Not one but three rivers ran through the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night at Symphony Center. Four, if you count the babbling brook in the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”).

Led by Spanish guest conductor Juanjo Mena, this week’s subscription concerts are an intriguing installment in the CSO’s monthlong Rivers festival. Two of the works, the “Pastoral” Symphony and Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” are about as standard as classical repertoire can get. But the concert’s remaining pieces, “riverrun,” written in 1985 by Toru Takemitsu, and “Amazonas,” composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1917, are much less familiar.

Heard in a single concert, however, the four pieces provided a fascinating window into the way composers evoke the physical world. From the powerful, unhurried flow of the Czech composer’s beloved Moldau to the startling birds and beasts of Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Amazon, the musical images were as vivid and specific as paint on canvas.

The imagery in Takemitsu’s “riverrun,” featuring pianist Peter Serkin as the meticulously expressive soloist, was the most elusive. Inspired by the unbroken stream of prose in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” the Japanese composer designed “riverrun” as an endlessly circulating wash of sound. Under Mena’s sensitive direction, the atmosphere was hushed and mysterious. Harmonies were constantly changing and brief snatches of melody floated to the surface, only to disappear again amid swaying strings and watery woodwinds. Woven tightly into the orchestral texture, Serkin’s piano took on a gleaming edge, evoking the dance of sunlight on water or the weight of sharp stones glimmering far beneath the surface. Takemitsu’s music is in Serkin’s bones. He was soloist for the world premiere of “riverrun” in 1985 and performed the piece that summer with the CSO at Ravinia.

“Amazonas,” receiving its CSO debut, conjured up an entirely different water world. Written four years after Stravinsky’s raucous and boundary-breaking “The Rite of Spring,” it is Villa-Lobos’ wildly colorful response to Stravinsky’s portrait of prehistoric Russia. Written for very large orchestra and an exotic percussion battery, it offered a densely packed jungle of ever-changing orchestral sound. Woodwinds flew in and out, singing and chirping like large, brilliantly colored birds. A bold cry from the CSO’s massed brass opened the piece, and tambourines shivered like rattle snakes.

Yuan-Qing Yu, the CSO’s assistant concertmaster, made haunting, distant-sounding music on a violinophone, a Brazilian instrument that combines a violin’s strings with a trumpet’s bell. Deftly balancing the myriad layers while maintaining a sense of constant momentum, Mena explored a vibrant, powerful river teeming with life.

“The Moldau,” which opened the concert, was too brightly colored for my taste, lacking the grandeur and melancholy that can make Smetana’s salute to his beloved Czech countryside so moving. But hearing Beethoven’s familiar ode to nature after “riverrun” and “Amazonas” was a revelation. With the unusual sounds of Takemitsu and Villa-Lobos still in our ears, we were more alert to the ingenious details in Beethoven’s score. From the sudden rustle of stormy double basses to the comic interplay of Michael Henoch’s lean, agile oboe and Stephen Williamson’s burly clarinet, Beethoven’s musical day in the country sounded remarkably fresh.

Wynne Delacoma, the Sun-Times classical music critic from 1991 to 2006, is a freelance contributor.

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