Right on the heels of David Afkham’s notable Chicago Symphony debut last week came another thirty-something conductor following suit, the Colombian-born and Viennese-trained Andrés Orozco-Estrada. He certainly intended to make his mark with a muscular program anchored by Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride, also making her CSO debut. Despite the allure of the repertoire, Orchestra Hall was noticeably underpopulated for a Saturday night, likely due to Game 4 of the World Series – this year being the Chicago Cubs’ first appearance since 1945.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Kodály’s folksy Dances of Galánta initiated matters on a lively note. The suite is conceived of five interconnected dances with origins in the Hungarian countryside (although Galánta is now on the Slovak side of modern borders). Kodály was an avid collector of folk music much like compatriot Bartók. Beginning slow and stately, it quickly gave way to the jaunty syncopated rhythms of dance punctuated by much attractive writing for the solo clarinet. Stephen Williamson delivered these passages with both fire and languor and the strings added to the Hungarian flare. Athletic, flashy gestures were had on the podium by the self-assured conductor as it drew to an energetic close, yet absent was the ineffable but essential, authentic folk quality that I imagine someone like Solti would have conjured.

Sibelius' Violin Concerto opened with a bracing Nordic chill, Skride’s sustained note over nervous tremolos in the strings and the mellow clarinet of John Bruce Yeh. Her high notes floated in the stratosphere and the fiendish cadenza put her technique through a grueling test. Despite the concerto’s emphasis on the soloist, Skride often didn’t manage to project adequately over the orchestra. Although one must take care not to excessively romanticize Sibelius, I found Skride’s playing a step too detached and dispassionate.

The slow movement fared better with the lovely sounds of the winds before the long, singing lines of the solo violin, and eventually the movement built to brassy climaxes that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the composer’s symphonies. Donald Tovey famously and perhaps not altogether charitably referred to the finale as a “polonaise for polar bears”; indeed much of the material would sound trite in the hands of lesser composer, and Skride used its easy appeal to bring an uneven performance to a rollicking close.

The second half paired The Unanswered Question of Charles Ives with Strauss’ great tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra – and quite literally so as Orozco-Estrada made the perplexing decision to play the two without pause between. Interestingly, the last time the CSO played either work they also were juxtaposed on the same program, a thoughtful programming choice to be sure as both constitute an existential exploration of the human condition.

Ives begins with strings emulating the celestial music of the spheres, and in due course the trumpet superimposes itself to pose the titular question. Although Ives asked for a solo trumpet, the duties of asking the question on seven occasions were split between the three members of the trumpet section. Each question drew a lively response from the winds, increasingly carping and discursive, until the last which was met with only the eternality of the strings, remaining unanswered indeed.

Also sprach Zarathustra is easily a calling card for the CSO having given the first US performance in a matter of just a few months after Strauss himself conducted the world première. While the level of orchestral playing was very high, Orozco-Estrada couldn’t quite bring all the elements together necessary to yield a performance worthy of the finest. The iconic opening was suitably dramatic, the rumbling of the organ adding to the visceral effect of this most brilliant sunrise. “Von den Hinterweltlern” was a truly gorgeous affair, with fine playing from cellist Kenneth Olsen along with the organ subtly suggesting the Credo to conflate religious fervor with cultural backwater. Passionate playing was heard in “Von der großen Sehnsucht”, aided and abetted by a horn section seven members strong.

The exacting “Von der Wissenschaft” began in the double basses with additional contributions from bassoonist Keith Buncke and bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom although matters fell short in the contrapuntal clarity department. “Das Tanzlied” featured stylish and elegant playing from concertmaster Robert Chen in this invocation of the Viennese waltz. In the Nietzschean cosmos on which the work is based, dance is offered as viable Dionysian alternative for self-realization, on par with religion and science. Time and again, the orchestra came across with excessive crash and bombast, questioning Orozco-Estrada’s degree of control; nowhere was this more glaring than in the final mysterious dialogue between the winds and pizzicato basses which was too forceful and present instead of shrouded in enigma.