Just two weeks after the memorable Chicago Symphony debut of Jakub Hrůša, another young Slavic conductor took the CSO podium for the first time: Juraj Valčuha, principally known on the other side of the Atlantic for his association with the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. His program was certainly offbeat and eclectic – opening with a Haydn symphony, it culminated in Viennese waltzes by way of a neglected Szymanowski violin concerto with soloist Christian Tetzlaff.

Juraj Valčuha © Chicago Symphony
Juraj Valčuha
© Chicago Symphony

Haydn’s Symphony no. 85 in B flat major, one of the Paris Symphonies, was purportedly a favorite of Marie Antoinette, hence its epithet “La Reine”. Valčuha’s sweeping gestures drew a hefty sound out of the orchestra, perhaps emulating the large Parisian ensembles for which these symphonies were written, nearly twice the size of what Haydn was accustomed to at Eszterháza. Dotted rhythms invoked the French overture in the introduction before the first movement proper began, a graceful theme occasionally erupting into a volley of tightly-wound sixteenths. The main theme reappeared in the solo oboe, elegantly played by Michael Henoch, to function as a pseudo-secondary subject as per the composer’s witty ingenuity.

A set of variations on a French folk song comprised the slow movement of a quintessentially Haydnesque charm, and I was struck by the transparent clarity with which the orchestra negotiated the subtle inner voices. The minuet was delivered with a beguiling rhythmic snap, while William Buchman’s bassoon solo was a highpoint of the trio, setting up the all too brief whirlwind finale.

While contemporary violin concertos of Berg, Stravinsky and Bartók regularly appear on concert programs, it’s something of a regret that Szymanowski’s two fine examples in the medium are often in the shadows of those better-known quantities, and Tetzlaff’s gripping performance served as the evening’s highlight. Structurally, Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 is quite remarkable, a one movement edifice that is architecturally sound while nonetheless eschewing sonata form. A kaleidoscope of shifting textures, it opened in shimmering mystery, colored by flourishes in the piano. The solo entrance soared above the orchestra, and rarely ventured far from the instrument’s upper register. From agony to ecstasy, Tetzlaff’s delivery exuded both ferocious virtuosity and intense lyricism.

The extensive cadenza, written by the concerto’s dedicatee Paweł Kochański (and soloist in the CSO’s first performance of the work), was particularly spellbinding. Tetzlaff had a well-earned respite in the moments following, in which the orchestra alone surged to one last climax. The violin re-entered, and guided the concerto to its quiet, unassuming conclusion.

The latter half of the program was firmly grounded in Vienna, beginning with the appealing Emperor Waltz of Johann Strauss II. An introduction in cut time served as a warm-up before the vivacious waltz, and was marked by a graceful solo passage in the cello from John Sharp. Valčuha imbued the waltz with panache, bringing to life a lavish ballroom in the Habsburg capital.

Another Strauss rounded off the evening, though this time attention turned to Richard, in the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss himself never produced an orchestral suite from the opera, a bit perplexing given its enormous popularity; the suite commonly performed was pieced together by conductor Artur Rodziński (who, incidentally, served as the CSO’s music director for a single season in the late 1940s). Matters opened in a truly Straussian orchestral density, though one could sense Valčuha was struggling to maintain continuity in such a lavish tapestry, even in spite of the orchestra’s distinguished tradition of Strauss playing.

There was a lush sensuousness, however, in the presentation of the rose scene, with further fine oboe work from Henoch and a coloristic use of the celesta. The familiar waltz was introduced in due course, lilting and heightened by concertmaster Stephanie Jeong’s refined solo playing. The final duet between Octavian and Sophie was rapturous, even without the use of voices. Another waltz concluded the suite, this time garrulous and bombastic.