Abrams scores strong Civic Orchestra debut with Copland's 3rd Symphony

Teddy Abrams
Chicago Tribune

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Seventy years after it was written, the Third Symphony, like many another Copland score, has fallen into neglect, here as elsewhere. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra hasn't played it downtown since 2007. A succession of European-oriented music directors has voiced its disregard for Copland and an entire school of American composition.


And so it was left to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO's training orchestra for young preprofessional musicians, to argue the merits of a great American symphony — make that the great American symphony — at its concert Tuesday night at Symphony Center.


The youth ensemble did so remarkably well under Teddy Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra and one of the bright lights of his podium generation, in his Civic debut. Like one of his mentors, Michael Tilson Thomas (whose podium manner he rather takes after), Abrams has a real affinity for the Copland idiom. This, combined with a clear, vigorous, limber-limbed conducting style, got his ideas across to the young players decisively, to judge by the sureness and finish of their performance.


The 29-year-old conductor drew a marked contrast between Copland's big-boned oratory and his lyrical simplicity, keeping bombast in check, refusing to gild the rhetorical lily. The scherzolike second movement is a veritable minefield of shifting meters and off-kilter rhythms that crackled with energy here. Abrams' conducting was a study in quick reflexes. His long arms in constant, swooping motion, he pounced on each attack, savored each syncopation. He was fascinating to watch and even more fascinating to listen to.


Apart from an edgy trumpet here, some suspect woodwind intonation there, the Civic players came through for him in a manner that would have done credit to many an adult professional orchestra.


Tuesday's program also was notable for offering the local premiere of "Drift and Providence," an electroacoustic work by Samuel Adams, one of the CSO's composers in residence. Adams wrote it for Thomas and the New World Symphony, which premiered it in 2012, soon after Abrams concluded his term as conducting fellow and assistant conductor with Miami's preprofessional youth orchestra.


A serious concern for humankind's despoiling of the natural environment informs this 20-minute piece for large, percussion-laden orchestra and digital sound manipulation. Water is a key expressive element, its pristine beauty evoked by the undulating, diaphanous, Debussyan strings of the opening pages.