After devoting the three weeks of Riccardo Muti's spring residency mainly to core Austro-German repertory, the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra probably were in need of a change of pace. And so, for that matter, were audience members.
To the rescue this weekend at Symphony Center comes Pablo Heras-Casado. The young Spanish conductor made his CSO subscription series debut on Thursday night with a concert of 20th century French and French-influenced Spanish music. He acquitted himself expertly even if the program itself was a curious patchwork that contained about as many misses as hits.
Heras-Casado's burgeoning career is taking him all over the planet, from opera and symphony appearances in Berlin, to chamber concerts in New York (where the Orchestra of St. Luke's made him its principal conductor in 2011), to debuts next season with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. New music would appear to be his specialty – his local debut was at the helm of a CSO MusicNOW concert three seasons ago – and one hopes his next CSO engagement will include something contemporary.
Like his mentor, Pierre Boulez, Heras-Casado conducts without a baton. This frees his hands to sculpt phrases with the kind of precision and point one associates with the CSO's conductor emeritus. Yet for all his intellectual grasp of music, there also was a particularly Mediterranean sensuality in the quality of sound he elicited from the orchestra.
This served him especially well in the program's centerpiece, Manuel de Falla's "El Amor Brujo" ("Love, the Magician"). Heras-Casado hails from southern Spain where he grew up with Andalusian Gypsy music and dance. While it may be too facile (and a cliché) to say the idiom is in his blood, there was no denying the sensitivity to atmosphere, color and rhythm he brought to this ballet with song. The "Ritual Fire Dance" had real rhythmic bite, while the swaying syncopations of the "Pantomime" worked their seductive effect.
The same could not be said, alas, for the vocal contributions of Marina Heredia, the alluring flamenco singer who delivered the score's flamenco-inspired songs. A native of Heras-Casado's hometown of Granada, Heredia certainly looked the part; too bad she didn't sound it. Even with considerable amplification, the voice was so small and desiccated, so lacking in depth, that it was almost completely covered by the orchestra. While employing a real flamenco singer might have seemed the authentic way to go, "El Amor Brujo" demands a classically trained voice of both power and resonance, qualities woefully lacking here.
Another ballet, this one entering the CSO repertory for the first time, anchored the first half of Heras-Casado's program.
Debussy's 1913 "La Boite a Joujoux" ("The Toy Box") is a children's ballet the composer never completed beyond a version for solo piano. It fell to his friend, Andre Caplet, to create the orchestration a year after his death in 1918.
I'm sure the music is perfectly charming when used to accompany the stage action, but it feels too thin and diffuse to stand on its own, even when done with the delicacy and refinement Heras-Casado brought to it on this occasion: The music meanders pleasantly for 35 minutes without having anything much to say. Debussy must have agreed. "Something to amuse the children, nothing more," he said of the original.
"The Toy Box" is full of musical quotations that come across as rather precious in-jokes without the visual element, although it also gives various principal players opportunities to act out, like characters in the ballet. Pianist Mary Sauer got the most prominent solos, and she played them well, though without the panache Scott Hostetler brought to his English horn solo.
Heras-Casado surrounded the two ballets with popular pieces by Maurice Ravel, "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte."
"Le Tombeau," Ravel's delectable homage to the French Baroque era, came off the best. The conductor kept the dance movements flowing with a touch so light and pointed that the orchestra often appeared weightless. The suite found oboist Eugene Izotov and the rest of the woodwinds in their stylish element.
"Pavane" was spoiled by a big blooper from the first horn and a plodding tempo that turned one of Ravel's loveliest orchestral pieces into a dirge for a dead princess.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $27-$212; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
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