Among other titled positions, these days Edo de Waart finds himself as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, and this proximity to Chicago has led him to be the CSO’s unofficial go-to substitute in recent seasons. This week he filled in for Christoph von Dohnányi in the first of two decidedly Viennese programs of Mozart and Beethoven. Dohnányi is reportedly recovering from minor eye surgery and is expected to return as scheduled the following week.

Daniel Gingrich, Edo de Waart and the CSO © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Daniel Gingrich, Edo de Waart and the CSO
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Mozart’s Symphony no. 38 in D major chronologically falls between The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, and the specter of the latter is present from the beginning, with the dark shading of timpani rolls opening the expansive introduction, and a transition to the sonata-form proper even more telling. The grandiosity of this symphony is in many ways an orchestral conception of operatic drama. The small but mighty wind section, with pairs of flutes, oboes, and bassoons was easily the star of the performance – and as per the symphony’s epithet, it was written for Prague, a city with a distinguished tradition of wind playing.

A solo oboe passage from Michael Henoch carried the thematic ideas of the first movement, and its development was marked by an intricate fugato texture which de Waart and the orchestra negotiated with precision and clarity. It anticipates the fugal finale of the Jupiter symphony which, incidentally, is to be performed next week. Most striking in the heavenly slow movement was a searching theme presented in the winds which elicited a warm and genial response from the strings. A wealth of ideas in this movement gently unfolded with apparent ease. Not wanting to delay the excitement of the finale, Mozart eschews the minuet and goes directly into the concluding movement, with themes all but lifted from Figaro. The flute playing from Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson was a highpoint, and this marked his first official outing as principal.

Daniel Gingrich has admirably acted as principal horn since the retirement of the formidable Dale Clevenger, and served as protagonist in Mozart’s Horn Concerto no. 3 in E flat major. It’s a very compact piece – only half the length of the concomitant piano concertos – but it says much in little. Dotted, martial rhythms opened the work, soon to be taken over by Gingrich’s familiar, glowing tone, leading to a cadenza of his own device. The long, singing lines of the slow movement demonstrated the instrument’s lyrical potential, while in the rambunctious finale it effectively became a hunting horn. There were some sporadic technical mishaps and times when better projection would have been ideal, but how humbling it must have been to stand in front of colleagues of this orchestra.

The program was rounded off with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major. Following a declamatory opening, the slow introduction had real weight, immediately differentiating the work from any Haydnesque antecedents. In the extended slow movement, the clarinets added warmth to its pastoral beauty, augmented by gentle touches from the horns. It was taken at leisurely pace but not excessively so under de Waart’s direction. Here Beethoven breaks with the time-honored tradition of the minuet and introduces a scherzo as the work’s penultimate movement. Calmer passages likely taking inspiration from the Austrian Ländler were contrasted with stormier sections and bright playing in the trumpets and horns. 

In the finale, I was once again struck by the fine playing of bassoonist Keith Buncke; as a whole, the movement struck an ideal balance between joie de vivre and dramatic fire. It was the former that won the day, the symphony’s good humor remarkably obfuscating the despair Beethoven was feeling at the time, concurrent with the anguished Heiligenstadt Testament in which the composer acknowledged he was going completely deaf. And indeed, one could hardly guess that Beethoven’s next entry in the genre would be the epochal Eroica, but even in this early work, the seeds of revolution were firmly planted.