In the final Chicago Symphony program of year, veteran podium guest Michael Tilson Thomas delivered a dependably superlative outing in an evening bookended by ballet scores of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Not only was this the last concert before the usual holiday break, but the CSO is devoting January to an 11-concert European tour with music director Riccardo Muti. While Chicagoans may thus not get to see their home orchestra for some weeks, the year nonetheless ended on an auspicious note.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Tilson Thomas opened by resurrecting a rarity from his beloved Stravinsky in the Scènes de ballet. Despite the work’s immediate appeal, it hasn’t made it on to a CSO program since a 1945 performance under Désiré Defauw, only a year after its première as part of an extravagant concert organized by impresario Billy Rose. In his spoken introduction, Tilson Thomas recounted the work’s personal significance to him, in that it was composed around the time of his birth, and that completion of the orchestration was assisted by Ingolf Dahl who would later become his teacher. MTT aptly described the work as a “diversion, but from the hands of a master”.

It began with piquant sonorities from the brass cast in a rather unpredictable 5/8 meter. There were some humorous interjections in the tuba from Gene Pokorny as well as prominent writing for the piano, although here one couldn’t help but notice the absence of Mary Sauer who retired last month after an astonishing tenure of nearly six decades. The piece proved to be a veritable smorgasbord of effects, given with an irresistible charm by the CSO musicians. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the central Pas de deux with Mark Ridenour’s bold, showstopping trumpet solo or the lovely cello duet between John Sharp and Brant Taylor that followed. The concluding Apothéose initially recalled the opening, blossoming to a shimmering, blazing finale which could hardly be anticipated in an otherwise modest work. In his excellent pre-concert lecture, Lawrence Rapchak suggested that this triumphant conclusion was in fact Stravinsky’s response to the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation.

Those in the audience of a more Romantic persuasion had their fill in Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor with the gifted Gautier Capuçon. The cello dominated from the onset, the deeply burnished tone emanating from Capuçon’s fabled 1701 Matteo Goffriller instrument ideal for the work. The second movement was marked by delicate gestures in the strings contrasted by Capuçon’s arching melodies, as if the orchestra was speaking in mere phrases while Capuçon was orating extended paragraphs. Michael Henoch’s oboe solo in the finale recalled the winding, lyrical melody of the first movement, although matters became increasingly spirited with some rapid-fire playing from Capuçon to bring the piece to a vivacious conclusion.

Gautier Capuçon and the Chicago Symphony © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Gautier Capuçon and the Chicago Symphony
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The second half was reserved for Prokofiev’s durable Romeo and Juliet, and MTT heightened one’s interest in the work by presenting it in his own arrangement of excerpts – sixteen selections in all, lasting some 44 minutes. This afforded the opportunity to hear several pieces not included in the composer’s familiar suites in this telescoped version of the complete ballet. The Introduction to Act I set the tone in its lush orchestrations of a gentle, sweetly dissonant melody, an embodiment of Prokofiev’s unique take on Romanticism strained by more modernist sensibilities. “Romeo” burst forth with swagger while “The Quarrel” built to powerful brass climaxes, anticipating the pile-driving intensity of “The Fight”. “The Nurse” was a more peaceful affair, colored by the muted trumpets.

The familiar “Young Juliet” was wonderfully capricious, contrasted by a more lyrical interlude which put clarinetist John Bruce Yeh in the spotlight. Prokofiev’s idiosyncratic orchestration called for the tenor saxophone in the “Folk Dance”, matters soon building to a rustic abandon. The angst-ridden theme of “Dance of the Knights” was visceral in impact while its calmer moments were noted for the seductive playing from flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, and the ensuing “Balcony Scene” soared to passionate heights.  As per the tragedy, all could not end well and the suite ended with ferocious tumult in a cataclysmic “Death of Tybalt”; while it was undeniably a dramatic way to conclude one only wished time allowed for more.

****1