Tuesday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance with Stéphane Denève was all about radical shifts, and not just in the musical moments themselves. The program’s first half, which consisted of Weber’s The Ruler of the Spirits overture and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1, was mostly lifeless and lackluster, yet the second half (Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique) was brimming with raw energy. It was as if these were two different performances by two completely different ensembles.

Stéphane Denève © Drew Farrell
Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell
Actually, the latter part of that statement has some truth to it, as the first two pieces featured a more condensed orchestration. The Shostakovich was essentially a chamber orchestra, as it called for only one horn and timpani from their respective sections, but the Weber also had a reduced instrumentation that lacked some of the principals that came out for the Berlioz. Perhaps it was due to this necessary constriction in the orchestration, but these pieces lacked dynamic and expressive ranges that are typical of CSO performances.

The real difference, however, came in the solo cellist. Gabriel Cabezas, a 21-year-old prodigy who has already appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony of Costa Rica, was technically fine, but this particular performance was surely not his strongest showcase. His tone often lacked the fullness necessary to compete with the orchestra, and he frequently had pitch issues. Many of his flourishing runs, for example, seemed to approximate pitches along the way, and even some weighted notes from lyrical passages rang flat. Furthermore, Cabezas’ expressive range was very limited due to a thin vibrato, which was especially noticeable in the passionate cadenza.

For all the faults of the first half, the CSO’s performance of Symphonie fantastique was simply transcendent, particularly in the final three movements. Berlioz’s orchestration is intensely vivid even without the crutch of his program notes, and Denève deftly led the orchestra in a perpetually expansive exploration of the music’s dark psychosis. The performance also gained in strength as the piece went on. For example, the first movement was hindered by the same imprecision and lack of attention to detail that marred the Shostakovich, as there was noticeable phasing in several wind attacks and polyrhythmic string runs. The second movement was far more technically precise and had a carefree lightness to it, yet it took no real risks. This changed starting in the third movement, however, and each of the final three movements became even more daring than the one before.

The moment this performance of Berlioz became more than just a solid performance and began to organically embody the subconscious of the composer’s protagonist was in the double reed duet at the beginning of the third movement, which featured Scott Hostetler on English horn and an unidentified offstage player. The interplay between these two was seamless and shockingly well timed, and Hostetler deserves special recognition for his richly lyrical interpretation. This section was also effective because of the nuanced shading achieved by instruments with supporting material, particularly the subdued tremolos in the violas. This is certainly a testament to the inventiveness of Berlioz’s orchestral writing, but this rendition found a fresh way to maximize the effect of these fine details.

There were also plenty of gloriously large moments in which the orchestra daringly flirted with the balance between a full-bodied tone and cacophony. These moments in the fourth and fifth movements were almost always driven by the brass section, which was perfectly balanced from tuba to trumpet to produce a brilliant and sonically efficient sound. The natural reverb that rang after the fourth movement’s final chord was a fine example of this, and the effect was utterly haunting. Furthermore, each crescendo seemed to arrive at heights that extended beyond anything that came before it, which created a streak of momentum that lasted until the very end.

Even though these moments of intensity brought great excitement to the performance, its strongest aspect was the way in which these were strikingly juxtaposed with soft moments of vibrant coloration. Symphonie fantastique utilizes a wealth of pizzicati, and even though this effect can be overshadowed in even the sparsest orchestration, they consistently shined through here. There were even instances in the fourth movement where a boisterous brass phrase would give way to a pizzicato passage, and these extremes were played to a delightfully exaggerated effect.

With their exploration of radical peaks and valleys, the final three movements proved to be an enthralling journey worthy of Berlioz’s manic writing. Unfortunately, this push and pull also manifest itself on the concert as a whole, as this excitement and transcendence was lacking in the beginning. But still, what a way to end it.