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National pride transcends cultures in CSO, Chavez program

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoy| HANDOUT PHOTO

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya | HANDOUT PHOTO

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Chicago Symphony orchestra


Carlos Chavez Piano

Miguel Harth-Bedoya,
conductor; with Jorge Federico Osorio When:

Repeats Sat. at 8 p.m. and Dec 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $40-$199; students $10 with valid ID

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:46PM

Some works enter the standard repertoire immediately at their premieres. Some come and go as tastes of musicians, programmers and audiences change. Some disappear almost as soon as they arrive.

And others remain ripe for rediscovery after long periods of neglect. Such is the case with the grand, multi-layered, unusually personal 1938-1940 Piano Concerto by Mexico’s great composer-conductor Carlos Chavez (1899-1978). Given its world premiere in 1942 by repertoire-expanding American pianist Eugene List with the New York Philharmonic under its music director Dimitri Mitropoulos, the three-movement, 36-minute work was a sensation with critics but viewed dimly by many audience members who were not seeking such a challenge in the midst of World War II.

A contemporary and close friend of Aaron Copland — Chavez was the latter’s introduction and guide to all things Mexican, including the actual El Salon Mexico dance hall — Chavez holds a parallel place in Mexico to Copland’s in this country. Yet other than his brief, tightly-wound “Sinfonia india” of 1935-36, incorporating themes of native peoples, Chavez’s works and writings are too little known here. (Credit Riccardo Muti for learning this signature piece to open the 2010-2011 season before he was felled by illness.) The 2015 edition of the annual Bard College Music Festival in New York State will seek to change this with a full treatment and publication of “Chavez and His World.”

As Copland did, Chavez understood that being a national composer was something much more than discovering and recycling folk tunes. Indigenous and folk culture — and their instruments and vocal styles and methods — were and are points of inspiration for creating original music that can speak across classes and backgrounds as well as borders. (Copland and Chavez frequently featured the other’s music in their homelands and encouraged protegees in creating open-sounding music. Chavez collaborated with Edgard Varese and John Cage in the U.S. and gave the 1958 Norton Lectures at Harvard.)

Europeans and North Americans still have a hard time realizing that there are strong, international fine arts traditions and experiments in Mexico, and even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had never presented the Chavez Piano Concerto until this week, more than 70 years after its first public performances. Fortunately, the leading interpreter of this work and a great deal of the Mexican piano repertoire, Jorge Federico Osorio, a hero in his native land, makes his home in the Chicago area and is a revered teacher at Roosevelt University.

Osorio, reserved and patrician in appearance, the ultimate gentleman in person, launched this dramatic, rhythmically complex work Thursday night and expertly rode this cross between a perpetual motion machine and a bucking bronco. Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya had clearly apportioned his rehearsals to allow the players to focus on works new to them. Never atonal, the concerto is constantly moving in unexpected ways with shifts of scoring from large orchestra to almost chamber, even individual solo lines. Osorio, whose recording with the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico was released this year on Chicago’s own Cedille Records, was a magnetic advocate and leader of this often hypnotic work and was called back to the stage three times by the cheering audience and players. However belated, this was as historic a CSO premiere as I can recall in many years.

The concert opener was similarly a rarity with national style roots — Dvorak’s 1883 “Husitska” (Hussite) Overture, Op. 67, with which Theodore Thomas closed the very first concerts by the CSO back in 1891 and which was revived only once, for the orchestra’s centennial concert by former music director Rafael Kubelik in 1991. It remains a rich 13-minute work of great Czech spirit and fun that allows for trumpets and trombones to do what they do so well here. Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya, longtime music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra who now also leads Oslo’s Norwegian Radio Orchestra, clearly loves this piece and led it with passion and without a score as he did the often-played, half-hour Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures from an Exhibition” in a solid performance that cut the bombast. Christopher Martin’s trumpet carried not only the promenades but other evocative solos.

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