The Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart offered what was probably its most daring program so far this season, a collection of pieces by Strauss, Mozart and John Adams. An outstanding soloist in Augustin Hadelich and wonderful playing by individuals in the orchestra highlighted a successful evening of contrasting works.

Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks continued the CSO’s series of retrospectives during its 125th anniversary season. A very young Chicago Symphony gave the US première of this work in 1895. The ripened CSO of today gave a highly polished reading, punctuated with some colorful individual lines. Principal horn Daniel Gingrich got things off to a good start with a confident performance of the first, heroic “Till” theme. Next up in this programmatic work was Till’s “laughter” motif, played with apt obnoxiousness by the clarinets. Later came masterful solos from concertmaster Robert Chen, and just before the end, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh offered an evocative squeal to portray Till’s shrill final utterance. Edo de Waart led in an understated, yet still effective way, inspiring a wave of energy when the CSO performed in unison.

If a tone poem like Till Eulenspiegel is quintessential Romanticism, what better way to represent the Classical era than with Mozart’s final violin concerto? Violinist Augustin Hadelich proved an amazingly capable soloist in his CSO debut. Hot on the heels of his winning the inaugural Warner Music Prize, it is easy to see why this German violinist is enjoying a blossoming career. A lustrous tone, rich vibrato, and a clear sense of phrase and direction all contributed to a charming and successful rendition. Hadelich offered his own cadenzas throughout, which were adequately conceived and confidently executed. The CSO, pared down from its generous numbers for the Haydn concerto of a few weeks ago, offered fine accompaniment. The lower strings were especially fun in the pseudo-Turkish bombast of the last movement. There exists some “trouble” with Mozart’s polite ending to the rondo finale in that it’s not quite a barn-burner in the same way the endings of most major Romantic concertos are, where a delighted whoop from the audience is almost a guarantee. Perhaps with this in mind, Hadelich offered Paganini’s fifth Caprice as an encore. It was a searing performance, with intelligent musical shaping and gobsmacking technical accuracy. The audience, moved perhaps by the generosity of an encore or its virtuosic nature (or both), offered a deservedly loud ovation in return.

Following intermission came the most “daring” part of the programming, John Adams’  Harmonielehre of 1985. It’s difficult to deem this selection particularly outrageous, especially given Chicago’s bustling new music scene, but for the traditionally-minded CSO it was a decently progressive choice. Credence was lent to this performance by the presence of de Waart, long a champion of Adams and of contemporary music. He offered clear direction and beat patterning, mapping out a score comparatively unfamiliar to many in the CSO. The unmistakable E minor opening gets thing off to an epic start, and the grand scale doesn’t let up throughout the 40-minute work. Energetic minimalism colors much of the first movement, before shifting to introspection in the following movement (The Anfortas Wound). The timbre changes considerably here too, with an emphasis on the glassy, highest registers of certain soprano instruments. The effect is certainly not tinkly though, as the CSO produced an eerie alien soundscape. The final movement (Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) is again more minimalist in nature than the middle movement. A soothing, almost lulling start eventually evolves to become increasingly dramatic and exciting in its rush towards the (literally) brassy finish line. The CSO performed very well throughout this work, and special commendation goes out to an invigorating flute section as well as principal Cynthia Yeh and the percussion section for deftly managing the array and contrasts demanded by Adams. It was a treat to hear this work, and it would be great to see the CSO continue to explore works from living composers, particularly the ones that overfill the “overture” slot on traditional programs.