Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, September 20

By Sarah Bryan Miller

One of the great underdiscussed, underacknowledged factors in music performance is repertoire fatigue–the weariness and boredom engendered by doing the same work over and over. Keeping something fresh is a big enough problem for singers during relatively short runs at the opera, where a dozen performances are considered a lot and choristers in Carmen are ready to kick their wigs into the Chicago River by the halfway mark. It’s even worse for performers in long-running shows such as Phantom of the Opera and Show Boat, particularly Phantom, in which every move is choreographed and innovation of any sort is strictly forbidden. (And for those of us who wake up in the middle of the night with the music we’re currently rehearsing or performing pounding through our brains, the thought of years of Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes inhabiting our synapses is almost too much to bear.)

Sure, Hello, Dolly! has paid the bills for Carol Channing for time beyond record, but aren’t there days when she can’t stand the thought of gluing on those eyelashes one more time? Those who can bring the same zest and energy to the thousandth performance that they brought to the first are rare birds.

Instrumental soloists have a similar problem. No, they don’t have eight shows a week or even interminable runs. But the popular classical repertoire is limited, and the big names play essentially the same music year after year, at venue after venue all around the world. It’s hard enough for violinists, but even worse for cellists, who’ve captured the imaginations of, or had the means to commission works from, far fewer composers.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has stated in interviews that he sometimes feels constricted by the repertoire, and to fight the fatigue he’s commissioned new works, experimented with playing viola concerti, and indulged in pop collaborations that are sometimes beneath his prodigious talent. He might be forgiven were he bored out of his mind with Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, both of which were on this year’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra gala opening-night program. He was the cellist the last time the CSO did the Elgar, two summers ago at Ravinia, and he’s certainly performed it many times since. But if he was bored on Friday night he’s a consummate actor. He managed to keep the music fresh and find new depths in it, inspiring Daniel Barenboim and the CSO to provide a truly memorable evening.

The concert opened with one of Richard Strauss’s best tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, heard less than a year ago in Orchestra Hall and surely not due for a repeat so soon. The CSO does this music better than anyone else, and this performance had some fine moments, paricularly the humorous playing of principal clarinetist John Bruce Yeh. But Barenboim’s conducting was a touch too heavy-handed in places, and concertmaster Ruben Gonzalez offered mediocre, sour-toned solos. It was good, but not as good as it might have been.

Ma’s reading of the Elgar was both technically outstanding (how do his fingers fly so fast and so cleanly?) and deeply felt, played with bravado where called for and inner strength throughout. Barenboim and the orchestra rose to meet him for one of the finest half hours I’ve ever heard at Orchestra Hall. The Dvorak was almost equally thrilling, though the brass was consistently too loud. The horns were in great shape throughout the evening.

One of the recurring complaints about Barenboim’s conducting is his inconsistency (he considers it spontaneity) and the uncertainties with which he presents his musicians. But sometimes the spontaneous approach works spectacularly well, and this was one of those occasions. It can only work when everyone–conductor, soloist, players–is in complete sympathy, like a fine chamber group. Ma’s virtuosity, flare, and understanding brought out the very best in Barenboim, who obviously has a deep understanding of and love for both works (his deceased wife, Jacqueline du Pre, was one of the world’s finest cellists in her time, and her recording of the Elgar is still the standard). In their hands these familiar pieces became new territory. With Ma, Barenboim, and the CSO linked so magnificently, the evening became a gala performance purely on the strength of the playing and interpretations offered up. It was proof of the possibilities of sudden magic that make attending live performances essential.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/CSO–David DeLong.