One of the more exciting elements of a Chicago Symphony season is the opportunity to see a young conductor debut with the orchestra, and several are on tap to take their bow over the coming months. This week featured the subscription debut of the German-born David Afkham, already much admired on the other side of the Atlantic for his work as principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, in what was a singularly impressive showing.

David Afkham © Felix Broede
David Afkham
© Felix Broede
The first half opened this season’s traversal of the five Beethoven piano concertos with audience favorite Emanuel Ax in the Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. The opening was arresting in its restraint, and Afkham’s taut control and nuanced detailing was apparent from the onset, imbuing the orchestral tutti with a Mozartian grace and gentility. The same loving attention to detail was to be had in Ax’s dependable playing, crystalline and refined. Some fine oboe work from Michael Henoch added to the richness of the development along with dramatic flourishes in the piano that sought to discover tonalities quite distant from the home key. Ax gave the lengthy cadenza – Beethoven’s own – a true improvisatory feel.

Particularly striking was the piano’s entrance right at the beginning of the crepuscular slow movement, one of Beethoven’s loveliest. The atmosphere of calm and repose continued nearly unabated, with notable contributions from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh. If the second movement is the music of tranquility, the finale is much the opposite – insouciant, and effervescing with jovial wit. Ax infused the extrovert piano writing verve and swagger leading up to another cadential display. A serene choir of winds provided one a final moment of rest before the suitably energetic conclusion.

The enthusiastic reception sent Ax back to the keyboard with Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke. With its delicate melodies and carefully judged phrasing, it was Ax at his finest. The remainder of the Beethoven concerto cycle to be performed in due course will feature Richard Goode, Mitsuko Uchida, Yefim Bronfman, and Radu Lupu – much to look forward to indeed, and Ax has certainly set the bar high for his colleagues.

The sprawling Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich is an arduous test for even the most seasoned conductors, and Afkham surmounted the rigors with apparent ease. Afkham’s deep understanding and obvious attachment to this work was all the more evident by the way he coherently shaped the contours of the massive first movement, an epic and tragic soundscape. Disquieting clarinet solos from Stephen Williamson built upon the atmosphere of anxiety, anticipating the movement’s cataclysmic climax. The bassoon section was also in fine form, with some striking playing on the contrabassoon by Miles Manner. In the wake of the climax, the mood was dark and elegiac, finally dissipating into Jennifer Gunn’s impossibly long note in the upper reaches of the piccolo.

The concise Allegro had some speedy baton acrobatics from Afkham, and with cinematic intensity one could nearly sense the presence of Soviet tanks. In the Allegretto, flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson introduced the D-S-C-H motif, Shostakovich’s musical signature, only to be interrupted by Daniel Gingrich’s horn as the movement gave way to an ironic dance. The last such interruption was on the verge of inaudibility, Gingrich’s control at the extremities of dynamics an impressive feat. The finale began in a serious vein in the low strings, with additional support from oboist Alex Klein and bassoonist Keith Buncke. Rather flippantly, Williamson initiated the concluding Allegro, lively yet not without a caustic sarcasm. Afkham never let up on intensity in the final minutes, setting the stage for David Herbert to hammer out the D-S-C-H motif on the timpani, leaving little room for speculation as to the work’s composer in its thrilling conclusion. While ultimately it may have fallen short of a benchmark performance, Afkham and the CSO were fine partners in a daunting piece, and I look forward to their continued collaborations.

***11