This weekend’s Chicago Symphony concerts marked the second time within the month in which a high-profile conductor was forced to bow out due to health-related reasons, but once again the administration succeeded in booking a first-rate substitute. While Christoph von Dohnányi is recovering from a hairline pelvic fracture, the orchestra was in more than capable hands under Neeme Järvi, who was on the CSO podium as recently as last December. The evening was highlighted by concertmaster Robert Chen’s annual concerto appearance, in a pair of works spanning the 20th century.

Neeme Järvi © Simon van Boxtel
Neeme Järvi
© Simon van Boxtel

Järvi has maintained a close association with Estonian compatriot Arvo Pärt for over half a century. The conductor notoriously contravened the Soviet authorities by not seeking approval for Pärt’s Credo prior to conducting its 1968 première. In the wake of the surrounding controversy, Pärt took a hiatus from composition, only to emerge eight years later with his iconic tintinnabuli technique. Fratres, dating from 1977, was one of the first major products of his compositional rejuvenation. It is essentially of indeterminate instrumentation as Pärt has created a myriad of versions for varying combinations of instruments, the essence of the work transcending a specific medium. The CSO’s version of choice was the 1992 conception for solo violin, strings and percussion.

The work opened with a dreamy sequence of pulsing arpeggios in Chen’s solo violin. Following the unaccompanied introduction, the rest of the ensemble joined in with a prayer-like chord sequence in the strings, regularly interrupted by an ever-present gesture in the percussion (bass drum and claves), repeated as if a ticking clock. Chen’s full-bodied tone took flight above his colleagues, landing in his instrument’s upper register in the work’s concluding moments before matters faded into silence.

Composed in 1908, Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1 did not receive a complete performance until 1958, well after the death of both composer and of violinist Stefi Geyer, his unrequited romantic interest who was the concerto’s primary inspiration. As with the previous work, it began with Chen delivering a monologue; deeply melodic, it was perhaps the last embers of the composer’s attachment to 19th-century Romanticism. The orchestra buttressed Chen in due course, swelling to a rich chromatic density, and the pair of harps aided and abetted the movement’s especially lovely conclusion. Opening with a coarsely angular theme, the second movement was a foil to the preceding. A folk song was introduced, eliciting fine playing from the winds, and the piece closed in a rousing flourish with Chen impressive in his command of its technical demands.

Beethoven’s genial Pastoral symphony rounded off the program and, not one to rest on his laurels, Chen rejoined the orchestra in his usual concertmaster chair. The opening movement exuded a gentle bliss, and Järvi opted to jettison the repeat of the exposition, instead proceeding directly into the development, its key change a striking effect in a movement of otherwise largely static harmonies. The slow movement was leisurely, wholly untroubled – such a contrast to the stormy Fifth Symphony, composed essentially simultaneously. Famously ending in a series of birdcalls, they were given convincingly and without gimmick.

The halcyon central movement was played with a buoyant, rustic charm, and some especially fine contributions from oboist Michael Henoch, augmented by a subtle countermelody in the bassoon. There was genuine intensity in the following tempest, a Sturm und Drang enhanced by the rumbling timpani in their only appearance. The storm dispersed with the simple triadic melody first introduced in the clarinet, and the hymn-like finale was marked by a balance between depiction of a divine Elysium and the technical assurance of a well-oiled machine.