Thanksgiving weekend marked Marin Alsop’s much-belated subscription debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, regrettably having not appeared with this ensemble since an engagement at Ravinia in 2005.  Alsop made history in 2013 when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, and the present program opened with the same work which opened that celebrated event: Masquerade, by the CSO’s erstwhile composer-in-residence Anna Clyne. After spending quite a bit of time in the United States, Clyne returned to her British roots in this 5-minute fanfare evoking the cacophony of street entertainment once associated with the august festival for which it was written. What it might lack in musical substance, it makes up for in its high-octane propulsive drive, resolutely tonal while still evincing Clyne’s distinctive voice.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White
Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra followed – like Clyne, Barber is another who forged a fresh voice of musical modernism without resorting to altogether abandoning tonality. The Essay is tightly constructed and, like the title suggests, is driven by a singular, focused vision.  It opened with a searching flute solo articulately given by Richard Graef, followed by echoes in the bass clarinet, English horn and oboe. The principal wind players were all in very fine form.  Alsop negotiated the labyrinth of shifting meters with a natural authority for Barber’s idiom.  The tranquillo section began quietly in the strings, before gradually building to a great climax as the rest of the orchestra joined in a massive chorale.

Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker, also making a subscription debut, handled the solo duties in Gershwin’s ever-popular Rhapsody in Blue. John Bruce Yeh initiated things with the famous wailing clarinet glissando, suitably colored with jazz. The orchestra members, augmented by three saxophones, were clearly enjoying themselves and most memorable was the seductive slow theme, contrasting with the bustling commotion of the bulk of the work. Parker had a very showy stage presence (topped off with a bright turquoise shirt) – sometimes this served the music quite well, other times it felt a bit unnecessary. He delivered commanding virtuosity and a big tone that generally projected impressively well, although it nearly got swallowed by the orchestra in the boisterous conclusion. Whatever qualms one may have had were easily mitigated by his encore, the Blues Etude by the incomparable jazz great Oscar Peterson, a formidable study in perpetual motion.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony is arguably his finest work in the genre, with its mastery of large-scale form. It’s a rather dark and tragic piece, in contrast to its sunny G major successor and the Slavonic Dances that made him a household name. The driving first theme was said to have been inspired by a passing locomotive – incidentally, the percussive repeated notes in Rhapsody in Blue claimed inspiration from the same source, one possible connection in this otherwise stark juxtaposition. A more lyrical secondary theme offered a suitable complement, but the movement dies quietly, in unresolved pathos.

The painfully beautiful slow movement opened with a choir of winds played over pizzicato strings. In no apparent rush, the movement progressively unfolds until it climaxes in a passionate outpouring, overwhelming in its impact. The scherzo’s rhythmic drive gave this dance-inspired movement a remarkable buoyancy, and the dramatic finale, guided by Alsop’s frenetic yet perfectly controlled baton, maintained a tragic atmosphere until the last possible moment when a resplendent D major was allowed the final word. A strong showing all around from Alsop – let’s have her back soon.