CSO Sessions

CSO members David Cooper (left), principal horn, and Dennis Michel, bassoon, perform Mozart in an episode of "CSO Sessions."

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new, paid and online series "CSO Sessions" continues to offer high-quality performance combined with expert audio and visual presentation, making it the next best thing to being there.

The second installment of "CSO Sessions" features bigger ensembles than last week’s quintet and duo. First up during the concert recorded Sept. 24: a wind octet playing Mozart. This was followed by a string sextet giving us Tchaikovsky. The recording, released last week and available for viewing through Nov. 6, lasts 66 minutes, most of which is music — there are opening and closing credits, plus brief spoken introductions, but almost all the time is devoted to performance.

Before Mozart’s Serenade No. 11, William Welter, principal oboe of the CSO, made short remarks pointing out that the musicians who premiered this work in 1781 went to the composer’s home in Vienna a few weeks later to serenade him with his own serenade. I looked up this incident and found a charming account Mozart wrote to his father: “At eleven o’clock last night I was serenaded by two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons playing my own music. These musicians had the front gate opened for them, and when they had formed in the courtyard, they gave me, just as I was about to undress for bed, the most delightful surprise in the world with the opening E-flat chord.”

Mozart later revised the work to add two oboes, and that is the version performed by William Welter and Lora Schaefer (oboe), Stephen Williamson and John Bruce Yeh (clarinet), Keith Buncke and Dennis Michel (bassoon), and David Cooper and James Smelser (horn). The opening had a stately, even serious, mood and gave way to light-hearted yet still powerful playing.

The penetrating, glorious sound of the CSO oboes proved Mozart was right to add that instrument to the piece. The mellow and seductive clarinets contributed heft. The horns were bright, and the bassoons seductive. Throughout the performance, these winds gave the music lots of air and space without ever neglecting the marvelous, detailed texture of Mozart’s score, particularly in his minuets. There were bracing unisons and individual lines gently carved out.

The players were completely fluent in Mozartian bluster, particularly in the final movement. As the music romped forward at a blistering pace, their virtuosity was a marvel, as was the joy and energy they brought to the concluding moments.

The second and final composition on the program was created just over one hundred years after the Mozart serenade. Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor was written while he was also laboring over his Pushkin-based opera “Pikovaya dama” (“The Queen of Spades”). The composer was then in Italy, and he added the subtitle “Souvenir de Florence” to the sextet, even though its music is far more Russian than Italian.

The composer positions us from the very outset into a storm, with immediate drama and tension. The six string players — Robert Chen and Stephanie Jeong (violin), Wei-Ting Kuo and Lawrence Neuman (viola), and John Sharp and Kenneth Olsen (cello) — reveled in being thrust into the action in medias res: they performed as if they knew the ideas that preceded Tchaikovsky’s actual opening. They thrust and parried with nuance and technical brilliance, inhabiting the muscle of the music as their own.

This is uninhibited music, bursting with expression. Robert Chen, the concertmaster of the CSO, was masterful with the gripping melodies the composer gave the first violin. The six players propelled the music forward, concluding the first movement with a taut race to the concluding bar.

The following short Adagio opens with a gentle melody that Chen played with understated delicacy, while cocooned in charming pizzicato by other strings. John Sharp brought both ache and promise in his lyrical treatment of the movement’s cello theme. The third movement is where the Russian influences begin to dominate the music. The musicians offered whispery softness followed by gripping, galloping passages. The rough and tough cellos were particularly exciting.

The final Allegro vivace is stuffed with action, all of it rendered with easy aplomb by the sextet. There was intricacy in the fugue-like section, and homeyness in other parts reminiscent of folk dances. The musicians were dazzling in their controlled dash to Tchaikovsky’s exhilarating conclusion.

The audio recording (at least on my only-average computer) is splendid, with good balance and complete lack of nonmusical noise. The camerawork is exemplary, combining close-ups with wide shots displaying the entirety of each of the ensembles. Only occasionally are there special angles, such as a bird’s eye view that slowly pans down to the musicians. Shots of the full stage, emphasizing its round qualities, put me in mind of a snow globe. But instead of white fluff floating in water, my imagination created a small world filled with invisible, palpable musical notes swirling together, representing the sound these fine musicians created.

Each episode of "CSO Sessions," like a happier version of Cinderella, becomes available at the stroke of midnight every Thursday. The cost is $15, with a discount if three or more episodes are purchased at one time. This week’s recording, available at midnight as the clock strikes the beginning of Thursday, features Stravinsky’s Octet, Dvorak’s String Sextet in A major, and Saint-Georges’s Violin Sonata in A Major No. 3. Saint-Georges has long been dubbed the Black Mozart, and music fans not familiar with his work are sure to be delighted.

Also coming up is the CSO’s annual fundraiser, this year a free, online event on Oct. 24. “Sounds of Celebration: An Evening at Home with the CSO” will feature music by CSO musicians, with a special appearance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with greetings from music director Riccardo Muti. It begins at 7 p.m. and both before and after viewers can gather in virtual rooms to chat.

To learn more about CSO Sessions, the CSO fundraiser, or other CSO events, visit CSO.org.

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