Review: The CSO Under the Baton of Karina Canellakis Delivers the Goods

What kind of concert starts with an 11-minute introductory piece that ends up getting two ovations? A Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert that opens with Brio by Chicago-based composer Augusta Read Thomas. It was a fabulous opening to a concert that also included Kirill Gerstein playing Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in a-minor, op 54, and Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), op 40. Waving the baton was Karina Canellakis, who is making her CSO debut this weekend. It made for a delightful way to spend a Thursday evening, even if the performance had some flaws.

Thomas, a former Composer in Residence for the CSO, describes her music as "organic, … concerned with transformations and connections." Brio opens with frisky notes on the bass instruments that gradually connects to other orchestral sections. As the themes weave in and out among the orchestra's sections, momentum builds. This is most evident in the strings, which start with pizzicato finger plucks but end with arco use of the bows.

Brio is scored for a large orchestra, but it's very economical. Every instrument is there for a specific reason. Four French horns are needed to play brief, four-part chorales that come and go. Same holds true for the three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, all of whom play several brief passages separately and together. The percussion section is large, with, among other things, several timpani and keyboard mallet instruments, including marimba, harmonium, glockenspiel, and xylophone. Thomas also puts the harp and celesta to good use.

Katrina Canellakis Welcomes Augusta Read Thomas after the performance of Brio. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Canellakis successfully brought all the connections and transformations into the aural fabric. When Brio ended, the audience went nuts. Thomas was present and was called up to the stage… twice.

A lengthy stage reorganization ensued, which included raising a concert grand piano with the stage's elevator, a much smaller ensemble tackled Schumann's piano concerto. I have always been ambivalent about this piece, finding its themes rather pedestrian. Kirill Gerstein breathed great life into it with warmth and passion. Though not note perfect, his approach gave it a very nice and enjoyable vibe.

After the opening flourish on the piano, the winds and horns came in with a tight opening that meshed well with the piano. The problem was the strings, especially in the opening movement. From my seat in the balcony, they could hardly be heard. Concertos are often thought of as contests between a soloist and a larger ensemble. On Thursday, it felt more like the piano and winds against the strings.  

Kirill Gerstein played Schumann with warmth and passion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

In the charming second movement, the strings came to the fore, and things were better overall. But blending issues continued somewhat through the finale. That did not prevent a well-earned response from the audience for Gerstein, who offered a lovely encore, Waltz in A-flat major by Frederic Chopin.

After intermission the program was devoted to a single masterpiece, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) by Richard Strauss. I have always considered the music of Strauss to represent a culmination of all that was great in 19th century symphonic composition. Beethoven opened the 19th century with 45-minute symphonic works divided into four distinct, though thematically related movements.

One of Chicago's, and the world's, great orchestras. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Strauss uses the same 45 minutes, but his tone poems are unified works with the themes reappearing in different guises throughout. Strauss' score for Ein Heldenleben originally broke the work up into sections, such as "The Hero," "The Hero's Adversaries," "The Hero's Companion," and three others. He later requested the labels be removed, but the effects can still be felt. It is very powerful, especially in the hands of an excellent orchestra led by a savvy conductor.

The CSO delivered from the beginning when the lower strings sounded the main theme, giving The Hero a beautiful send off. It is lovely and bombastic at the same time. With Canellakis at the helm and all instruments being played at once, including the huge brass section, the orchestra sounded like a JMW Turner seascape, complete with waves, mist, and impressions. It was magical.

The woodwinds provided excellent contrast in their role of Adversaries, but concertmaster Robert Chen was great in his solo as the Hero's Companion. Tight and precise playing is his modus operandi, and he had it on Thursday. It was also entertaining to see the three trumpets leave the back of the stage, only to return after playing salvos from the wings.

Toward the end, orchestral phrasing got a little jagged, but that didn't matter. It was a very enjoyable performance, and the standing ovation well deserved.  

This concert will be repeated at Symphony Center Friday afternoon at 1:30pm, Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm. May 20-22, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For tickets, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.