Chicago Symphony Orchestra Soars With Mozart, Stravinsky and a Superb Conductor and Violinist: Review

Violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a CSO first subscription concert performance of Kreisler’s “Liebesleid.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)Violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a CSO first subscription concert performance of Kreisler’s “Liebesleid.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

It was not the usual full orchestra of 80 or so musicians at Thursday evening’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. About half the usual gathering had already been on the stage earlier in the day, performing a different program for school concerts. But the sound that filled Orchestra Hall was absolutely glorious as Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, the Danish-born conductor and violinist, did double duty.

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Not only did he lead and play along with the musicians who revealed the golden sound of works by Mozart and Stravinsky, but he also joined the string section that captured the full beauty of the fabled violinist Fritz Kreisler’s very brief but irresistible “Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow).” And what could not be missed was that Szeps-Znaider played on the 1741 Guarneri “del Gesu,” the golden-voiced violin that belonged to Kreisler and is now on extended loan to Szeps-Znaider.

Opening the evening was Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Major” for strings, solo violin, two oboes and two horns. Composed in 1775 when Mozart was 19 years old, the work possesses an instant exuberance and singing quality that was enhanced by Szeps-Znaider’s violin. The piece then moved into a quieter, more introverted, somewhat moody feel with a lovely delicacy that was followed by a dance-like passage.

Next came Kreisler’s 4-minute work with its gorgeous melody beautifully evoked by Szeps-Znaider and the strings. It was followed by Igor Stravinsky’s beguiling, richly orchestrated suite drawn from eight segments of his ballet “Pulcinella.” Composed on the heels of his groundbreaking masterpieces “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring,” the ballet was more traditional and playful in many ways and suggested a bit of a stylistic flip. Scored for strings, winds, trumpet and trombone, it is richly melodic and full of shifting moods ranging from dreamy moments to brief explosions and exuberant, playful riffs in the style of a Serenata, Tarantella, Gavotta, Minuetto and more.

Conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Prague Symphony. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)Conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Prague Symphony. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The concert’s second half was devoted to Mozart’s richly dramatic and melodic “Symphony No. 38 in D Major,” scored for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and the sound of the timpani that announces the work’s big opening.

From the start there is something compelling in the air of this piece, with the first of its three movements alternating between the lyrical and a powerfully full sound. Composed in 1786, the work has hints of something even more contemporary than usual with its mix of high energy and its use of the vivid instrumental voices bearing a rich, singing quality.

The second movement shifts to a more dreamy sound, with mood shifts that evoke a clarity from each section of the orchestra, particularly the winds. And the work’s third and final movement is full of energy, rhythmic intensity and many moments of great speed, with a fury from the strings and considerable excitement throughout.

All in all, a truly exhilarating evening.

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

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic


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