Friday, December 11, 2009

Chicago Symphony becomes the world's best Baroque band!

by Dwight Casimere

For one glorious night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra became the best chamber orchestra anywhere, led by British conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas Kraemer, whom Chicago audiences know as the principal guest conductor of Music of the Baroque.

It was the kind of music you’d like to listen to while sitting by a roaring fire with your favorite Christmas blankee covering your toes and a mug of warm coffee with nutmeg and perhaps a splash of cognac and a dollop of whipped cream at your side. In short, just the tonic for the bitter cold weather that almost had the Art Institute lions hunkering down for warmth under their holiday wreaths across the street.

With the exception of the overzealous audience members who insisted on beginning their applause before the final notes of Strauss’s evocative Metamorphosen reverberated from the fingerboards of the CSO strings (“it’s become a weekly occurrence!” declared the Chicago Tribune’s critic, John von Rhein as he exited the hall), it was a musically and spiritually satisfying experience.

In spite of the intrusion, the radiant musical glow of the evening still resonates deep within the soul.

Kraemer began the program with selections from Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, a work not heard at Symphony Center in more than thirty years. Composed when Mozart was just sixteen, the music is a snapshot of the volcanic genius that would later erupt in full-scale operas and symphonies.

Kraemer and company gave the work its due, playing it with a bright sound and sprightly tempos. The flute solos were well executed with supporting counterpoint from the oboe and bassoon. Dynamics were well observed, particularly in the second movement, Adagio, in which Kraemer allowed the inner voice of the violas to shine through with their lovely, achingly beautiful melodic line. He truly let their voices ‘sing.’ The horns, after a slightly tentative entrance, quickly gained their footing to deliver an impeccable performance. The minuet was a study in equipoise, with the flute and cellos performing a delicate balancing act against a chorus of horns. The interplay was perfection in motion.

Haydn’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 88, was conducted with vigor and authority. Kraemer allowed for plenty of breathing room in his unfolding of the Adagio and kept the tempo of the subsequent Allegro in check so that it did not appear rushed. Largo, the second movement is among the most magnificent slow movements written by any composer and Kraemer allowed its beautiful melody to unfold with reverence.

After the interval, the subscription audience got the treat they had come to see, Kramer conducting from the harpsichord in Telemann’s Selections from Tafelmusik II.

Its obvious that he is right at home behind the keyboard. The harpsichord has practically become an extension of Kraemer’s being. There’s scarcely a heartbeat between his keystrokes on the instrument and his downbeats to the musicians. The final movements, Minuet: Allegretto and Allegro con spirito were studies in the contrasts of tempo and timbre. The flute and oboes soared above a bracing supporting line from the strings.

Kraemer had each of the violinists stand in the manner of soloists for Richard Strauss’s contemplative Metamorphosen. Written against the backdrop of war-torn Germany in the final days of World War II, with the Third Reich breathing its last gasps in a bunker and the great music halls and opera cathedrals of Strauss’s beloved homeland in flames, it was the composer’s farewell to a life that would be no more. If only we could have savored his memorial for one brief moment.

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