Chicago Symphony Orchestra Soars With a New Work and a Mahler Symphony: Review

CSO principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson in the CSO-commissioned, world premiere performance of Liebermann’s “Flute Concerto No. 2” with conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg)CSO principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson in the CSO-commissioned, world premiere performance of Liebermann’s “Flute Concerto No. 2” with conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg)

It hardly needs to be said. But all those in Orchestra Hall on Thursday evening who heard a thrilling concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will easily attest to this fact: The CSO invariably generates pure musical magic, and it is undeniably one of the greatest cultural treasures of this city, and far beyond.

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Led by the Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki, who moves with the grace and clarity of a dancer, the program opened with Richard Wagner’s beautiful prelude to Act 1 of his opera “Lohengrin.”

The concert then moved on to the highlight of the evening: the world premiere of American composer Lowell Liebermann’s “Flute Concerto No. 2,” a CSO commission that featured a bravura performance by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the orchestra’s principal flutist. (Liebermann should be familiar to those who saw the Joffrey Ballet’s stunning production of “Frankenstein” last year, for which he wrote the score.)

In the second half of the concert the orchestra captured the brilliance of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4 in G Major,” whose closing movement featured a crystal-clear solo turn by the Chinese-born, Juilliard-trained soprano Ying Fang.

Wagner’s prelude opened with a beautifully quiet passage by the violins who were then joined by the winds and all the strings to create a fully dreamy atmosphere. Soon driven to a fuller sound from the brass, the piece then moved toward a big blast generated by the full percussion section before finally fading into a dreamy silence.

And now to Liebermann’s work for the flute that soared on the brilliant playing of Höskuldsson. The first of its three movements opened with a flute solo at once emotional and pensive. Chimes and strings joined in as the work took on a beautiful and somewhat pained and dreamy melody with plucked strings, the addition of horns and a big build deploying percussion, the solo flute and what seemed to conjure the sound of running water.

Soprano Ying Fang makes her CSO subscription debut in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg) Soprano Ying Fang makes her CSO subscription debut in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg)

There was a grandeur and romanticism to the piece as it developed, with the fast and fluid sound of Höskuldsson’s flute generating a lush orchestral response. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh worked her usual magic on a wide variety of instruments in collaboration with others to create a wonderful layering of sound. And then came the work’s third movement (“Animato”), with plucks on the bass strings, the building of sound from all parts of the orchestra and the dreamy subtlety, rippling sound, virtuosic speed and flawless beauty of Höskuldsson’s flute, plus a blast from the timpani.

And finally, on to Mahler’s symphony, a sonic feast with its theatricality, gorgeous (and familiar) melodies, celebratory blasts of sound, many mood shifts and the use of everything from sleigh bells and a glockenspiel to cymbals and harp. At one moment there is the suggestion of a brewing storm, at another there is a waltz and at another comes a heartrending melody. And finally there was the petite and beautiful Fang, with her crystal clear voice, singing in German (“Das Himmlische Leben,” or “Heavenly Life,” based on German folk poems). The overall magic of the work was held in the air until Mälkki lowered her baton and the audience erupted in a whirlwind of applause.

This concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For tickets, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000.

One final note: This concert was dubbed “College Night,” with “CSO student ambassadors” forming part of the audience as they “connected with each other through this orchestral music experience.”

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic


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