With a dynamic podium presence and innovative programming, Susanna Mälkki’s Chicago Symphony appearances have consistently achieved strong results. Thursday’s performance was no exception, and it was marked by a particularly offbeat selection of repertoire, highlighted by a new work from Melinda Wagner. Perhaps the biggest draw was the chance to hear Branford Marsalis in a pair of works for saxophone and orchestra, and the evening was rounded off by works of Bizet and Debussy.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C major, written when he was an enormously precocious seventeen-year-old, made for an ebullient opener. The declamatory beginning evidenced the young composer’s confident exuberance, while a secondary theme offered some more subdued contrast, gracefully given in the oboe by Michael Henoch. Henoch shone again in the slow movement, its arching lyricism surely that of a budding opera composer, and an intricate fugato echoed the masterful counterpoint of Bizet’s teacher Gounod. The effervescence returned in full force in the scherzo, flanking a charmingly Scottish-sounding trio, and the dashing finale brought this attractive if not terribly profound work to an energetic close.

The remarkably versatile Branford Marsalis took to the stage for the remainder of the first half, beginning with Fauré’s perennial Pavane in a transcription for soprano saxophone and orchestra. Marsalis brought out the instrument’s lyrical potential, keenly suited to the piece’s songful, yearning melancholy, and matters were further heightened by a lovely horn solo from Daniel Gingrich.

In a complete change of pace, Marsalis next turned to John Williams in a concert suite of three pieces from the movie Catch Me If You Can collectively titled Escapades. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as serial fraudster Frank Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can features one of Williams’ finest film scores – subtle yet eclectic. Escapades is scored as something of a triple concerto, with solo parts for alto saxophone, bass, and vibraphone, the latter two given by CSO members Robert Kassinger and Cynthia Yeh respectively.

“Closing In” opened the suite in a sleuthing mystery, and Marsalis imbued it with the snappy jazz inflections inherent in this New Orleans native. The central “Reflections” had a beguiling wistfulness, with quasi-improvisatory filigree in the sax played atop a stately theme from the violins. “Joy Ride” was the most overtly Hollywoodesque with its memorable and brassy three-note theme, which along with a substantial part for Yeh concluded the suite in a rousing fashion.

Pulitzer Prize winning composer Melinda Wagner has several important Chicago connections, having studied composition with Shulamit Ran at the University of Chicago and multiple CSO premières to her name, beginning with Falling Angels in 1993. Proceed, Moon, an 18-minute work with a title lifted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, received its first performance Thursday night on another CSO commission. The work was initiated with a fantastical flourish, and the massive forces built to an almost overwhelming density, yet Mälkki’s tight direction kept matters in sharp focus. It proceeded in a very stream-of-consciousness manner, and that it never felt excessively discursive is a testament to Wagner’s handling of large-scale structure.

With an extensive percussion battery, along with notable parts for piano and celesta, the work was at its core an exploration of orchestral color. Proceed, Moon was not without lyrical moments as well, particularly in a clarinet solo from John Bruce Yeh. A touching if somewhat unconvincing moment came near the end wherein a 1965 recording of an elementary school chorus singing Handel’s “Where E’er You Walk” was subsumed into the acoustic fabric of the piece. The recording in question was conducted by the composer’s recently deceased mother, and made for a lovely tribute. Although it was shortly thereafter drowned out by a loud dissonance, Proceed, Moon ultimately closed peacefully in the quietly arpeggiated violins and the ethereal sounds of the glass wind chimes. The composer was on hand to be recognized; this was a significant achievement which I look forward to hearing again.

Debussy’s Ibéria made for a fitting juxtaposition to the Wagner – roughly the same length, and also a work deeply concerned with color. Structured as a triptych within the larger triptych of the Images (of which Mälkki conducted the first in her previous CSO appearance – perhaps we’ll get the concluding work next time?), Ibéria is a brilliant portrait of the country Debussy loved yet scarcely visited, revealed almost immediately in the liberal use of castanets. The central section was notable for its languid sensuousness and a fine flute solo from Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson.  Distant church bells marked the hazy transition to the concluding “Le matin d'un jour de fête”, replete with guitar-style pizzicatos and closing in a blaze of Spanish fire.