This particular program demonstrated a strength in an area that is typically a weakness for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: extreme contrast the in style and era of its selections. Featuring a world première (in this case, a commission of theirs by Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima) is perhaps more of an anomaly than it should be for the CSO, but pairing it with a Schubert symphony was an inspired choice. The stark contrasts of the works that shared the concert’s first half made for palatable complements of one another, yet their mutual fondness of music from the past provided a key abstract connection. It was a tandem of old and new that succeeded because of their similarities and their differences.

Giovanni Sollima © Gian Maria Musarra
Giovanni Sollima
© Gian Maria Musarra
Any piece featuring Yo-Yo Ma (currently a creative consultant for the CSO) and its composer is going to be an event, but Antidotum Tarantulae XXI (Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra) proved to exceed its own lofty hype. Written during a chaotic travel schedule and featuring influences ranging from the Italian Renaissance to modern Americana, Sollima’s composition created an expansive yet well defined soundworld that remained wildly unpredictable up until its conclusion. It is surely rare and certainly unfair that a performer who can share the stage with Yo-Yo Ma can also handle orchestration with matching facility.

The strongest asset of Tarantulae is its crafty handling of global form. Many of its five movements flow together seamlessly, yet each is vividly unique in regard to sound and aesthetics. However, not every movement confines itself to the same idea. The first, third, and fourth movements essentially develop their own self-contained material, yet the second and fifth movements thrive on a childlike curiosity that explores a number of distinct sections.

The entire piece is held together in the ambitious finale by motives, gestures, and aesthetics found in the preceding movements. For example, the finale starts with the same ominous string and percussion pads that begin the first movement, and both are punctuated by a freestyle djembe. Other sections serve as more abstract links, as a later use of a brass burlesque recalls a similar section in the second movement, and a virtuosic arpeggiated figure towards the end hints at content from the fourth. These connective threads give retrospective support to the entire piece, and the music that was already pleasing for its own sake now seems doubly impressive.

Sollima also possesses a gift for orchestration. He wrote well for the strengths of himself and Ma, but there were several moments where their passages would extend organically into a section from the orchestra. The percussion section in particular benefited from Sollima’s curiosity, and Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos excelled at adding colorful splashes on an unusually large number of instruments. The only section underutilized was the brass, which, outside a brief pair of deliciously grotesque marches, received little of the creative treatment given to the other sections.

The playing on this demanding piece was mostly stellar, and Ma and Sollima were appropriately the standouts. Ma in particular played with a gorgeous lyricism, and even his most technical passages were warmed by his attention to phrasing. The two soloists maintained a playful dialogue throughout, and their consistent seamlessness provided a foundation off which the intentionally disconnected aspects of the music could be built. The orchestra struggled through some of the more technically demanding sections – mixed-meter passages in the second and fifth movements seemed on the verge of collapse, and the recurring full brass accents in the second never lined up. Still, these passages never lacked for excitement, and it made for a gripping experience to the very end.

Schubert’s Third and Fourth Symphonies functioned as bookends for this première, but they are also part of Muti’s ongoing commitment to bring Schubert’s symphonies to Symphony Center. Particularly in the Third, the CSO’s impeccable balance was on display, as every element of Schubert’s writing could be heard with pristine precision. The oboe/bassoon duet in this symphony’s third movement was easily a highlight, as Eugene Izotov and William Buchman blended perfectly and followed each other’s tempo embellishments with seasoned precision.

The biggest issue with the concert was the presence of the Fourth Symphony. While it was a fine performance, it also felt redundant. Contrast had already been established with the two works preceding the intermission, and the Fourth added little that had not already been accomplished by the Third. Performing both in such close proximity did no favors to Schubert’s writing, as some of the shared techniques between both (they had nearly identical slow introductions, for example) became glaringly obvious during the latter. Diversity gave added power to the first two selections, but redundancy gave some of that strength back in retrospect.