On Sunday, September 29, the Chicago Philharmonic opened their 24th season at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Scott Speck, the ensemble’s new artistic director, was energetic without indulging in histrionic motions. His leadership allowed the ensemble to showcase their remarkable range of beauty and power in a program highlighting works from the late part of the Romantic period.
The performance opened with Richard Strauss’s first tone poem, Don Juan. This piece is so challenging that it has become standard repertoire on most orchestral audition lists. Far too many performances of this work turn into a scramble of notes and wild tempo swings. Sunday night’s performance was tasteful and never overdone. The adventurous sections were brisk rather than frenzied; Don Juan’s romantic interludes were beautiful rather than saccharine. The work was capped off with lovely solos by concertmaster Robert Hanford, principal oboe Robert Morgan, and principal trumpet William Denton.
The next piece, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, was also a part of the Joffrey Ballet performances that the Chicago Philharmonic accompanied earlier in September. Piano soloist Kuang-Hao Hung possessed such a high level of technical mastery that the music seemed to flow effortlessly from his hands. Speck and the Philharmonic provided sensitive and flexible accompaniment for the concerto.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in celebration of the 100th anniversary of this work’s infamous premiere. Like the Tchaikovsky concerto, the Rite was one of the works that the Philharmonic performed with the Joffrey about a week and a half ago. That program featured a reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography. However, the Joffrey was unavailable to join the Philharmonic for their concert. After an exhaustive search, the orchestra invited the Agnieszka Laska Dancers from Portland Oregon. In a brief speech before the performance, Speck explained that this group had been selected for two reasons. First, choreographer Agnieszka Laska’s work was a poignant tribute to the original Nijinsky movements. Second, the opening solo dance had a wonderful foreshadowing of The Chosen One’s “Sacrificial Dance”.
The Nijinsky reconstruction fits beautifully with Stravinsky’s music. As a result, anyone else who creates choreography for Rite has some big ballet slippers to fill. While the general spirit of Laska’s dance was appropriate, it lacked the ferocity and rhythmic drive of the Nijinsky reconstruction. Nevertheless, the dancers performed with skill and passion. Lauren Michelle Richmond contributed an intense performance as The Chosen One during the “Sacrificial Dance”.
The Chicago Philharmonic, on the other hand, flexed their muscles for a powerful reading of this work. The size of the ensemble, which is slightly more compact than a full symphony orchestra, allowed them to bring out every complex rhythmic nuance of this piece with pinpoint accuracy.
Judging by this opening performance of the Chicago Philharmonic’s 24th season, Speck and the orchestra seem to have embarked on a strong partnership. It will be interesting to watch how the relationship develops throughout the remainder of the season.
Update: A representative from the Agnieszka Laska Dancers contacted the author to express that the dancers faced some challenges in fitting the choreography into the cramped space at the front of the stage. A video of the dancers performing in a larger venue is available on vimeo.com