The great gift Mark Elder brings to Chicago Symphony Orchestra audiences at holiday time is that of appealing symphonic repertory, delivered in such a way as to make the whole seem even finer than its components. Such a program greeted a curiously underpopulated Orchestra Hall on Thursday night.
The British conductor bookended his program with one of Antonin Dvorak’s final orchestral works, his seldom-heard symphonic poem “The Golden Spinning Wheel”; and the first symphonic essay by Dmitri Shostakovich, his Symphony No. 1, which the 19-year-old composer submitted as his graduation thesis to the Leningrad Conservatory.
Theodore Thomas, the CSO’s founder and first music director, gave the American premiere of “The Golden Spinning Wheel” in 1897, six years after the orchestra’s founding. The piece is based on a grisly narrative involving murder and dismemberment, but with an improbable happy ending that’s reflected in the music. The tone poem fairly bursts with beguiling melodies and the outdoorsy calls of hunting horns, all of which Elder brought out with keen attention to folk flavor, color and detail.
The guest conductor had reseated the orchestra according to the classical plan, the first and second violins answering each other across the podium, which proved especially appropriate for the Dvorak work. The fiddles sounded richer and more “present” of tone than usual.
Seldom has any 19-year-old composer announced his genius to the world with a more self-assured symphony than the Shostakovich First. Elder’s interpretation made a convincing case for his spoken assertion that each half of the symphony – the first two movements making up the first half, the last two movements making up the second – comes from a different side of his creative genius. Sure enough, the jocular, flippant mood of the opening Allegro and the breezy wit of the scherzo (here taken very briskly) were sharply drawn against the tragic Largo and the extroverted finale.
Elder’s feeling for Shostakovich is as sure-footed and idiomatic as any conductor’s today. His reading served as a brilliant display piece for the full orchestra as well as for its chamber-music components. Each of the various solos came off like a charm, none more so than that of cellist John Sharp in the slow movement, the eloquent heart of Elder’s interpretation.
The last time Elder and his compatriot, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, had worked together locally was in the Lyric production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” which Lyric is bringing back next week with other artists. It was good to have these longtime colleagues together at last with the CSO, performing Hector Berlioz’s song cycle “Les nuits d’ete” (“Summer Nights”).
Coote’s deeply considered view of the six songs was like none other I have heard – more a “seven ages of woman” than an innocent set of French Romantic songs. We know from the singer’s performance in Handel’s “Hercules” at Lyric in 2011 what a probing interpreter she can be. Here she entered heart and mind into the ethos of every song, exposing emotional nerve ends, making each song a potent little music drama unto itself. This was her CSO debut, and a memorable one it was.
The voice was rich and rangy, with low notes the singer used to telling effect in “Le spectre de la rose,” and French diction that bore no trace of an accent. Each song was slower than usual, but one never felt anything dragged because the expressive weight Coote brought to the words and music was so intense.
It will be difficult to forget the abject grief of “Sur les lagunes,” the nocturnal despair of “Au cimetiere,” the rapturous outpouring of “L’ile inconnue” or the yearning cries of “reviens” (“come back”) the singer floated at the end of “Absence.” With Elder as fully invested in the score as his soloist, it was no wonder this marvelous cycle worked its magic on the listener. The orchestra musicians were as unstinting in their applause for Coote as the audience.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $24-$212; 312-294-3000, cso.org.