Jonathan Nott and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra shared some very fine playing in a traditional program of Brahms, Haydn, and Strauss. What the program lacked in contrasting repertoire was made up with beautifully expressive playing. Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture opened the program. Comprised largely from a medley of four popular German tunes, the austere title of this piece is a misnomer. Encouraged by Nott’s shaping and direction, the CSO played this energetic work with verve and ample character. The strings provided a lush soundscape throughout, punctuated at times by spritely interjections from the woodwinds.

 Johannes Moser then joined Nott and a reduced CSO for Haydn’s Cello Concerto. Moser was phenomenal from start to finish, portraying this very familiar music in unexpected and effective ways. Joining the tutti at the start in an unobtrusive manner, Moser then blossomed into the solo line, performing in commanding fashion. Throughout, Moser was able to manipulate his bow to convey the variety of moods in the piece. So expressive was his treatment of the material that it seemed quite surprising that Haydn could possibly contain such a range of emotions! Particularly poignant was the second movement, where Moser made use of stark dynamic contrasts for dramatic effect. Juxtaposing a hushed tone with a full-blooded sound for the peaks of phrases, Moser created a vibrant musical conversation. The diversity of sound allowed Moser to color even the most banal harmonic progressions with otherworldly beauty, creating something both novel and yet also completely natural. Breaking the spell of the slow movement in a most fun way was the Allegro molto finale – Moser took it very molto indeed! Tackling the virtuosic flourishes at breakneck speed, Moser seemed to revel his peppy tempo choice. To their credit, Nott and the CSO, especially the violins, accompanied with dexterity and sensitivity even at this ambitious pace. Moser finished with a bang, and made an impressive case for Haydn Cello Concerto as a work that is fully engaging and up to snuff with the Romantic canon.

The evening closed with a work firmly in the Romantic canon, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. This work functioned as the retrospective in the CSO’s 125th anniversary season, as the orchestra gave this tone poem’s US première in 1900. Over a century later, Heldenleben still enthralls with its evocative, autobiographical storyline. From the sweep of the opening motif, the CSO impressed with a handsome sound, encouraged by Nott’s direction. Especially good to hear in the hero’s theme was an expansive brass section. Following the bold opening came the amusing depiction of the hero’s critics, portrayed by a nagging woodwind section.

One of the highlights of this performance came from concertmaster Robert Chen’s solos. This lengthy, recitative style violin solo is integral to the tone poem, as a portait of Strauss’ wife, Pauline de Ahna. A mercurial character to capture, Chen was successful in his alternately impetuous and lyrical playing, and projected well throughout. Following this came the battlefield scene, in all its bombastic glory. Cynthia Yeh led a powerful percussion section who easily captured the aggressive feel of this section. An ominous low brass duet signalled more darkness to come, but the tone poem soon tapers into the hero’s “retirement” section, and ended with some lovely interplay between the duet of Chen and principal horn Daniel Gingrich. It was an evocative end to a concert of exemplary and expressive performances.