The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was back on stage at Orchestra Hall this Thursday evening, barely a week after the orchestra’s intense three-week tour to 11 cities in Europe, with Riccardo Muti, now maestro emeritus, leading the way. As always, the musicians were in stellar form. And they were joined by two exceptional guest artists, both of whom were making their debuts with the CSO.
Stepping up to the podium was the richly expressive Gemma New, principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, who looks and moves like a superbly trained ballerina, and who was in impeccable control and communication with the musicians. And delivering a breathtaking, highly individualistic performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor” was Seong-Jin Cho, the 29-year-old pianist born in Seoul, Korea, who has been a guest performer with countless world-renowned orchestras.
To start at the very beginning: The concert opened with the CSO’s first performance of contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis,” an 11-minute work for string orchestra whose title, translated as “Heavenly Music,” beautifully captured many different moods in a notably modern way.
Opening with a subtly mournful, echoey and gently pained sound, it then shifted into a frenzied speed. This was followed by a passage of quiet grandeur captured by a delicate riff by the violins, violas and cellos and a peaceful silence. Exquisite.
Then came the Beethoven piano concerto with its familiar rhythmic opening and lushly lyrical and dramatic grandeur. It served as the gateway to Cho’s stunningly individualistic solo turn that captured the music’s many shifting moods with breathtaking speed, lightness and exquisite clarity.
The first movement had Cho and the orchestra on fire. The second movement began with a formidable mood shift, with Cho’s fluid, beautifully gentle rendering of the opening piano solo followed by a winningly rendered orchestral passage. The result — and it continued on all fronts throughout the work — subtly suggested the modern magic of this Beethoven concerto (dating from 1800). As Cho’s fingers flew over the keyboard and generated impeccable trills, he was backed by the feverish sound of every section of the orchestra as it drove with speed and clarity to the dynamic end of the work’s third movement.
Not surprisingly, the audience was on its feet for a grand ovation. And for his mood-shifting encore, Cho played the Adagio Cantabile (“slowly singing”) movement from Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor/Pathetique.” As with the concerto, Cho made a familiar melody “speak” in a new way.
The final work on the program was the orchestra’s beautiful rendering of Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (Scottish),” which was inspired by the composer’s trip to Scotland. The symphony opened with a rich, subtly solemn and beautiful melody featuring the French horns, which were joined by the strings and winds, and marked by dramatic, ideally executed mood shifts. New led the orchestra with strength, clarity and grace.
The work’s second movement was lighter and more playful, with notable work by the winds and a great burst of sound as the music moved from high excitement to calm. The third movement was marked by a lyrical beauty, the use of brass and then a singing sound from the strings. And the work’s fourth and final movement was set into motion with a strong, dramatic, richly exciting start and then a great, celebratory proclamation marked by another exciting burst of sound.
Throughout, the CSO was in its usual top form. And while it might be far too late to even suggest this, I left the concert hoping that New might even be under serious consideration to be named the CSO’s new music director.
This program will be repeated on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For tickets, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000.
One final note: I did not write a review of the superstar trio of world-famous musicians — pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist a Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma — who joined forces for an all-Beethoven program at Orchestra Hall this past Saturday evening. Suffice it to say, the show was riveting, and the three could clearly be seen to be having great fun, as was the audience.
As for Beethoven, after listening to both this trio and the CSO concert, he might very well still be smiling from somewhere in the outer reaches of the universe.
Note: This review was updated to correct the spelling of Seong-Jin Cho.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic