After more than a year without live audiences, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final concerts of this season are back in Orchestra Hall. Last week saw four performances of their penultimate season concert. As in the first outing since the pandemic struck, audience capacity was very low in order to place patrons far from each other. But those who got in, including me, were clearly delighted.
The first of the CSO’s three live-with-audience concerts featured brass and percussion. The second had an even larger ensemble, although still small by CSO standards, and the musicians were spaced as far apart as the stage size would allow.
Erina Yashima, a German-born conductor who has worked and studied with Ricardo Muti and is a winner of the CSO’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprenticeship, led the CSO in a wide-ranging program. Yashima began her tenure as assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019 and has worked closely with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.
Thursday night’s concert opened with two works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), the son of a white English woman and a Black doctor from Sierra Leone. As a child, he showed great promise as a musician and was given private instruction, and at 15 he attended the Royal College of Music. He became one of the most celebrated composers of his generation. “The Song of Hiawatha” was a late Victorian hit for Coleridge-Taylor, whose popularity led to him becoming known in the United States (which he visited several times) as “the Black Mahler”.
This concert featured the first CSO performances of two works by Coleridge-Taylor, Novelettes No. 3 and No. 4. These short works for strings, tambourine, and triangle combine romantic melodies with lots of modern color. It is thought that the composer took the title “Novelette” from Schumann.
There was lots to love in the performance, which Yashima infused with great energy. Energy, in fact, is her great strength and the broad, muscular sections were robust and satisfying, but less so those sections that were more contemplative and gently moving. Nonetheless, the performances had shimmer and appeal, showcasing the work of a talented composer, particularly his gift for melody.
This was followed by the main work on the program, Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major. Yashima ensured that the opening Allegro was amiable and inviting, if lacking in a certain lightness. The dotted rhythms were crisp and appealing and the strings were silky smooth.
The Andante had the nobility of a Mozart work (Schubert was particularly keen on Mozart at the time he wrote the symphony) and there was a good pulse throughout. Crisp phrasing and gently meandering music combined nicely.
There was good punch and pleasing chromaticism in the third movement. The final movement, the shortest in the symphony, was full of excitement and drama, although I got an unbalanced hearing, as I was seated to the very far side of the house and was unable to clearly hear the winds. In fact, when it was over Yashima clearly signaled to several players at the back of the stage to stand for individual applause, but I could see none of those so honored. (Undoubtedly, they were wind players.)
I recently received a press release for an event that will include music of Jessie Montgomery and she was described as an “up and coming” composer. I might have agreed with that a year or two ago. Today, I believe, she has arrived. Before the pandemic, I had written about her music two or three times. During the pandemic, I heard her music several times and observed that it was programmed in several events I didn’t hear. She’s the real deal and the CSO has named her as their next composer-in-residence, a three-year gig she begins in July.
So it was delightful that Montgomery’s “Strum” for string orchestra was on the CSO program. A version for string quartet plus bass was performed by CSO musicians in their video series earlier this season. About that performance, I wrote in these pages, “Montgomery’s sense of Americana in her music puts me in mind of Aaron Copland and William Grant Still. She has Copland’s ability to spin little folk-like melodies into gold, and Still’s ability to infuse that American sound with subtle influences of genre music (jazz, for example) in wise, judicious ways that enhance the classical canon’s big bag of tricks.”
Now hearing the piece for a string orchestra, I’m more convinced than ever that Montgomery has her ear on the pulse of American music and is well placed to make a strong and lasting impression on classical music.
The CSO gave her “Strum” exuberance with pert pizzicato and charming finger strums of the strings. At one moment you might imagine a banjo in the band, and in another you imagine yourself in a cathedral. Her music is effervescent and can pivot from mood to mood with flair and, at times, brilliance.
The concert closed with the “Dances of Galánta” by Kodály. The introduction had big sound and power, and was followed by intriguing swirls of music rolling through the orchestra. Yashima reveled in the richness of the rhythms, ornaments, and textures although I could see room for a much bigger lean on the syncopation. Throughout there was fine clarinet work by Stephen Williamson, who wowed the audience throughout. Yashima presided over a forceful conclusion leading to relatively large applause. And when I say “relatively large” I mean that had the hall been full, it would have been thunderous.
If everyone wasn’t masked, I’m certain I would have seen a sea of smiles in the audience. As it was, I could only judge by the bouncing gait and happy chatter around me. This was a concert CSO fans had been waiting for and they were well pleased with the results.