The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, demonstrated that the traditional programming of overture, concerto and symphony is not necessarily a tired concept, with an effective evening combining old and new music.

The program began with Berlioz’s Les francs-Juges Overture, the only remnant of his unsuccessful opera of the same name. This work is essentially comprised of two themes, a brooding, austere motif with pointed dotted rhythms, and a sing-song melody filled with hope. Both were played with ample character by the CSO. The violin sections introduced the cheery music with charm, before their urgent syncopations injected dark energy into the proceedings. Ominous rumblings in the bass drum and the timpani punctuated the texture in this stormy section. At the end, the two contrasting themes are brought together in close succession. The CSO trumpets made a convincing case for the more optimistic music with a winning, bright sound.

Jennifer Koh with Ludovic Morlot and the CSO © Todd Rosenberg
Jennifer Koh with Ludovic Morlot and the CSO
© Todd Rosenberg

While the Berlioz was pleasant, the real buzz of the evening was all about the première of a new violin concerto by Anna Clyne, a CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence. The Seamstress was inspired in part by a William Butler Yeats poem. For this work, Clyne envisioned a one-act ballet. A seamstress sits alone on stage, and her mind wanders through various thoughts, from love to despair, combining memory with fantasy. New music champion Jennifer Koh was the violinist for these first performances.

The concerto began with the solo violin, tinged with nostalgia, sounding like fiddle music. Koh shaped the folkish melody with characterful lilt before the orchestra joined her with a drone accompaniment. The violin wove in and out of the orchestral texture throughout this work, and the interplay between violin and harp was particularly fun. Koh strummed her open strings in ascending order and the harp answered in reverse. This circular motion seemed apt for the subject matter (perhaps a nod to Gretchen at her spinning wheel?), and would be found in other figures throughout the work. The music soon evolved beyond the simple opening melody, with Koh adding difficult double-stopped and arpeggiated figures to the mix. Eventually the opening was completely transformed when Koh began a gritty cadenza of pyrotechnic virtuosity. Several bow hairs were shredded before the music shifted to a more lyrical place. Here, Koh bent pitches from just a bit too sharp or flat to their in-tune resting place for great emotional effect.

The Seamstress includes laptop in its instrumentation, for various electronic sound effects and a recording of the Yeats poem. These were particularly good for creating an eerie quality. A very high-pitched sound that added a notable alien dimension to the orchestral sound and sibilant snatches of Yeats that were quite unsettling. From this otherworldly place came a new section, featuring a rhapsodizing, melancholy violin line. Koh was able to sing through stratospheric writing without her tone breaking or leaving the introspective soundscape Clyne had written. Near the end, the opening folk elements returned, a welcome home after a journey through the varied thoughts of Clyne’s imagined seamstress. This concerto works well as a concert piece, and I’d be interested to see it choreographed as a ballet, a collaboration that seems to be in the works. The audience gave a very warm reception for Koh, Clyne, Morlot and the CSO.

Contrasting with this new work and a slightly obscure Berlioz overture came a very recognizable symphony, Beethoven’s “Eroica”. While most of the CSO could probably play this piece in their sleep, familiarity did not breed contempt (nor sloppiness). Morlot captained a tight ship, immediately evident in those famous opening chords, crisply played by the CSO. The woodwind exchanges in the first movement were totally seamless, at times obscuring the differences in instrumental timbre. Principal horn Daniel Gingrich produced a golden, warm tone in his solo. Character changes were made very clear throughout, from the funereal second movement to the Puckish scherzo in the third. The last movement and its theme underwent various transformations. The winds were again exceptional, with the oboe singing a plaintive line before later giving way to a clarinet solo that sounded a bit tipsy in its off-kilter style. The symphony ended with flair; the strings providing a wave of energy in their ascending line and the brass sounded suitably triumphant.