Thomas, CSO bring ebullient spirit to Austro-German novelties

Jeremy Denk
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

This is the season when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony get cozy.

The latter ensemble has invited Riccardo Muti and the CSO to perform two concerts in the City by the Bay in February as part of the Chicagoans' first West Coast tour in more than 20 years. In return, Muti's counterpart in San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas, will bring his orchestra to Chicago in March for one of his adventuresome "American Mavericks Festival" programs, part of a national tour undertaken in honor of the San Francisco orchestra's 100th anniversary.

Thomas returned to Orchestra Hall on Thursday night to unofficially launch this much-anticipated musical exchange.

The former wunderkind turned senior American maestro has been one of the CSO's most valued guest conductors over a period of more than 40 years. This owes as much to Thomas' stimulating programs as to the skill with which he realizes them. His weekend appearances, continuing the Chicago Symphony's season-long commemoration of the centenary of Gustav Mahler's death, are no exception.

He opened with a Mahler rarity, the long-lost "Blumine" movement that began life as the original second movement of the composer's Symphony No. 1. Mahler eventually decided to revert from a five-movement design to the four-movement First Symphony we know today, and "Blumine" disappeared. The manuscript did not resurface until 1966 when Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell came across it at the Yale University Library.

Mahler was right to excise "Blumine": It is out of character with the rest of the symphony and only interrupts its narrative continuity. That said, it works perfectly well as a standalone piece, particularly when it is performed, as here, as a pendant to the First Symphony, which Jaap van Zweden had directed with the CSO only the week before.

Thomas, who has recorded all the completed Mahler symphonies (though not "Blumine") with his San Francisco Symphony, drew a loving account from the CSO without loving this simple, lyrical vignette to death. The rapt sensitivity with which principal trumpet Christopher Martin wove the main tune through Mahler's delicate orchestration fairly took one's breath away.

Fast-forward 53 years to another composer dear to Thomas' heart, Johannes Brahms – albeit filtered through the sensibility of Brahms' self-proclaimed spiritual heir, Arnold Schoenberg.

The latter's 1937 orchestration of Brahms' 1859 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor is hardly authentic Brahms – not with scoring that includes tambourine and xylophone – but it is prime tonal Schoenberg, a wonderfully effective homage across generations of German-Austrian music.

Like Christoph Eschenbach before him, Thomas is an interventionist interpreter of this piece. He molded the rhythms with generous rubato, speeding up and slowing down over a wide dynamic range, in keeping with Schoenberg's detailed markings. The wonder of it was that it all felt spontaneous.

How many other orchestras can play this piece with such full-blooded character or virtuosity? How many conductors can bring out the airy grace of the Intermezzo, or the café-music schmaltz of the Gypsy-rondo finale, so well? How many orchestral players can rise to the occasion like clarinetist Stephen Williamson and percussionist Cynthia Yeh (among other CSO principals) did?

Between the Mahler and the Brahms-Schoenberg, Thomas and the orchestra proved to be alert, incisive partners to soloist Jeremy Denk in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. The American pianist's CSO debut was unaccountably long in coming, but for many of us it was worth waiting for. His recent recording of Charles Ives piano sonatas (Think Denk Media) displays a formidable technique and a fine combination of intellectual rigor and emotional depth.

His Beethoven on Thursday displayed much the same fusion of head and heart, particularly in the big first cadenza, which he built in a commanding arc of lucid articulation and musical probity. The concerto occupies the cusp between early and middle Beethoven, and Denk, with his expansive treatment of the slow movement, emphasized the music's hymn-like, Haydnesque qualities. He was warmly applauded.

I look forward to hearing more from Denk in June when he is scheduled to perform in a chamber music program presented as part of the CSO's "Keys to the City" piano festival.