Amidst the holiday pops programs that plague orchestras this time of year, James Conlon led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the antithesis: four works tangential to the standard repertoire, the first two of which the CSO had never performed before. Conlon is a familiar face here in Chicago having just stepped down at the end of last summer as music director of the Ravinia Festival with a memorable performance of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, and it was wonderful to see him back so soon.

Alexander Hanna © Todd Rosenberg
Alexander Hanna
© Todd Rosenberg
During his Ravinia tenure, Conlon proved to be master of Mozart's operas, leading especially noteworthy performances of the da Ponte trilogy. In the present concert, he dug deep into the Mozart catalogue, opening with the overture to Lucio Silla, enticing music from the pen of 16 year old. In a tripartite structure as was the early classical convention, it opens regal and ceremonial, suggesting the titular Roman statesman. A contrasting slow section eschews brass and percussion, and the piece is rounded off by a molto allegro rondo to which Conlon and the orchestra brought great vitality.

The remarkably young Alexander Hanna assumed the role of principal double bass in 2012, and has consistently proved to be one of the most successful appointments of the Muti era. Thursday night marked his first outing as soloist with the CSO in the Double Bass Concerto in E major by Johann Baptist Vanhal, a prolific Bohemian who was quite popular in his day. One doesn’t readily think of the double bass as a solo instrument, but in hearing Hanna’s limber and lyrical playing, you would never guess that this is an instrument usually relegated to the background.

After the orchestral introduction, Hanna entered with a beautifully shaped melody often reaching the bass’s upper registers, played with crystal clear intonation. The first movement cadenza was an impressive display of his commanding technique. The Adagio evinced the instrument’s rarely heard tender side, and is enough to elevate the concerto as a whole beyond the prosaic. The vivacious finale could have been played with even more verve, but nonetheless it concluded matters in a breathless fashion, highlighted particularly by Hanna’s dazzling series of arpeggios. In a future season, let’s have Hanna lead an exploration of forgotten concertos for double bass!

The second half of the program was devoted to another Bohemian, much better-known but in little-known works: two selections from Dvořák’s late quartet of tone poems. After writing extensively in abstract forms, Dvořák took a sudden detour into programmatic music upon returning from his American sojourn. It was in part a way for him to return to his Czech roots, as these four tone poems – written in rapid succession within a year – were based on Kytice, a collection of folk poetry by nationalist poet Karel Jaromír Erben (perhaps the Czech equivalent to Des Knaben Wunderhorn). As these tales aren’t generally ones 21st-century American audiences are familiar with, Conlon took to the microphone to explain what he was about to paint in music.

In my estimation, these tone poems constitute Dvořák’s finest orchestral scores, surpassing many of the symphonies. These are much darker works than those of the sunny disposition we usually associate with Dvořák, as per their rather grotesque source material. The Wood Dove begins with a funeral march, in a Beethovenian C minor, replete with descending gestures in the strings to depict weeping. It is revealed that this funeral is for a man poisoned by his wife who swiftly remarried. She encounters a dove perched above her first husband’s grave, and its song is eerily brought to life by trills in the strings, anchored by J. Lawrie Bloom’s searching line in the bass clarinet. These phantasmagoric effects are nearly without parallel in the orchestral repertoire, creating a mood that could be from an Edgar Allan Poe tale as the woman is haunted by guilt. Eventually, she’s driven to drown herself in the river, terrifyingly portrayed with the full force of the orchestra, and the mysterious dove is given the last word.

The tale of The Golden Spinning Wheel is even more convoluted, and accordingly it runs to nearly half an hour in duration. Dvořák created several of his themes based on the rhythm of Erben’s poem, writing the work as a veritable song without words. It begins with a galloping theme and a regal fanfare, both with reoccur throughout in a kaleidoscope of permutations. Stephanie Jeong had concertmaster duties, and heightened the performance with her tender solos; Sarah Bullen’s contributions on the harp also richened the texture. A lively polka added some levity to this gruesome story, but perhaps most impressive was the thrice repeated chorale in the low brass. In this case, there’s a happy ending, and matters were concluded in glorious fashion.