Violinist Christian Tetzlaff performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor Edward Gardner on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Sometimes it is an unusual grouping of musical works that captures your attention and you think, “I should give that a listen.” And so it was with an overture by Wagner, a concerto by Bartok and a symphony by Vaughn Williams that I traveled downtown to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) with a guest conductor last Friday night, Nov. 4, at Symphony Center.

English conductor Edward Gardner took the baton. He has long been associated with opera, having been music director of the English National Opera for several years ending in 2015. He’s the principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and is artistic advisor of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, where he is scheduled to become music director in 2024. 

The great German violinist Christian Tetzlaff shared the stage with Gardner and the CSO for Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. It was composed from 1937–38 and first performed in Amsterdam in 1939.

Tetzlaff’s first entrance had warmth and charm, but he held much back in reserve. As the music became more complex, there was lots of muscle where needed and lots of inner calm. So the music revealed itself in fascinating ways: lyrical moments laced with unusual chromatic paths, folk-like tunes rendered with unusual spice, and quarter tones which perked up all ears.

Gardner maintained a good sense of tension and the brass were bright and authoritative but never overbearing. Both soloist and orchestra nicely spun out the variations in the middle movement, and the colors constantly shifted as the variations moved from spit and vinegar to elaborate discordant expressions.

This was detailed music playing, carefully considered and masterfully presented. The audience was enthralled and offered Tetzlaff and all the musicians a standing ovation. This was followed by a solo violin encore. Tetzlaff offered a tender, expressive, quiet reading of J.S. Bach’s Largo from the Sonata No. 3 in C Major. You could hear a pin drop, the house was so quiet with all ears focused on Tetzlaff.

The other big work on the program was the Symphony No. 5 by Ralph Vaughn Williams. It was originally written between 1936 and 1943, and later revised in 1951.

Englishman Gardner did Englishman Vaughan Williams proud, with a glimmering, shimmering performance. The pentatonic scale used early in the violins created a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. The moving parts shifted with precision and Gardner employed fortissimos with exhilarating intensity.

The unusual rhythmic pulse of the second movement was strong and the winds and violins worked well together to heighten tension. 

Although Vaughan Williams considered this symphony to be absolute music — music without an underlying story — he employed some of his previously composed music in the work. This music was to have been for what he called a “morality” (short for “morality play” perhaps) based on writer John Bunyan’s book “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. 

This music has incredible power, beginning with a mighty English horn solo and continuing throughout the third movement. It is meditative and calm, but never superficial. Whether you hear it as spiritual or as a call to deeper introspection will depend upon the listener. But there is lots to ponder here, and Gardner and the CSO let the audience luxuriate in the splendid music. 

The closing movement is ultimately triumphant in character, and it returns to melodies of the opening. It closed with a graceful quiet in the winds and upper strings, and hummed to a conclusion. It was a marvelous interpretation of one of Vaughn Williams’s greatest works.

The concert opened with the Prelude to Act 3 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Wagner. It opens with a melody in the cellos that sighs and softly cries, indicating that Hans Sachs, the wise shoemaker who understands both music and love, is thinking about that day’s music contest. The chorale was rendered with appropriate solemnity and there was always a Wagnerian undercurrent of heroism present. The music exhaled optimism and the gentle contours of the music were all unsparingly detailed.

It was a splendid concert with no shortage of smiles on the faces of those leaving Symphony Center for home. It was not a well-attended concert, and it seems every music presenter in the city is faced with the same problem: even with pandemic restrictions almost entirely absent, audiences are unquestionably smaller than before the pandemic. These are difficult and trying times for music presenters.

This week the CSO joins forces with the Joffrey Ballet. Two newly commissioned choreographies will be presented. First, Cathy Marston choreographs Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and then Annabelle Lopez Ochoa choreographs Rameau’s Suite from “Platée”. Also on the program is Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin”. Harry Bicket will be the guest conductor. 

Performances are Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For more information, visit CSO.org.

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