at Pick-Staiger Hall

Compare symphonic apples to apples, and Symphony II, whose core consists of Lyric and Grant Park orchestra players, comes out very well. Just as Chicago Opera Theater should be compared not to the Lyric but to the regional opera companies, so Symphony II’s real peers are the regional orchestras, the Kansas City Symphony or the Milwaukee Symphony. Most cities would be thrilled to have the Symphony II instrumentalists for their primary orchestra, but in Chicago they labor in the shadow of the CSO.

After Symphony II’s predecessor, the Orchestra of Illinois, went bust, a number of observers asked whether there was a real need for a second professional orchestra in the Chicago area. Live-music junkies, the many folks who can’t get tickets to the CSO, the people who prefer not to go downtown would undoubtedly say yes. Any lingering questions were answered at the final concert of the season.

The concert opener was Rossini’s familiar William Tell overture. These days it’s required to celebrate certain composers when they hit the age of 200 (or have been decomposing for 200 years). The overture, however hackneyed it may have become, is still a rousing bit of writing, and for that reason as good a piece of mandatory Rossini as may be found in this bicentennial year–it wouldn’t have gained cliche status had it not been so evocative in the first place. (What a pity we won’t get to hear the full opera, Rossini’s masterpiece; the Lyric settled on his version of Otello for its mandatory Rossini this fall.) Notable in a satisfying performance was the principal cellist, Barbara Haffner, who drew forth a rich, warm tone for her solo passage. And the visceral pleasure of being in the same room with a well-thumped bass drum should not be lightly dismissed.

Only a little less familiar than the Rossini was the Max Bruch Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in G Minor. The orchestra’s promising young soloist, Elisa Barston, attacked the piece with more muscularity than thoughtfulness, which led to an occasional coarseness of tone, but her energy and musicality won me over.

The final work on the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11, The Year 1905, was a remarkable choice of repertoire. Though not the Chicago premiere of the work, as advertised, it was the second performance in this area. (Conductor Larry Rachleff’s comments comparing the Russian uprisings of 1905 and 1917 and the Hungarian revolt of 1956 to the recent shoot-‘n’-loot festival in Los Angeles demonstrated the danger of letting musical directors speak from the podium.)

Some of Shostakovich’s output is exciting and original, but much more of it is derivative and banal–the result of composing to please chief music critic Joseph Stalin. Shostakovich went in and out of favor more than once, each time winning his way back with musical compositions the rest of the world recognized as stinkers. His 11th symphony, composed in 1957, is a memorial to the victims of czarist tyranny in 1905, when a peaceful demonstration outside the Winter Palace became a bloodbath. It pointed forward to the successful uprising of 1917, and the commissars approved. But Shostakovich had a hidden agenda–he was also painting a picture of the brutal Soviet repression of Hungary in 1956.

The symphony’s one long movement begins with a quiet demonstration. The repeated, almost lulling theme, “With Bared Heads”–in which the workers call on their “Little Father,” the czar, to help them in their distress–is interspersed with occasional trumpet calls. The music very slowly builds to a gut-wrenching depiction of the massacre. It then returns to the quiet songs of the first section in a prolonged (a little bit too prolonged) requiem section and ends with an uplifting call for revolution.

Shostakovich made good use of the orchestral colors at his command, particularly in the darker strings sections. He included an extended melancholy song for the violas, punctuated by their big brothers (how often do the violas get to shine?); he combined the strings later to portray the fury of a people wronged. The writing for the battery of percussion is imaginative, moving beyond the obvious rat-a-tats and cymbal clashes for depicting war to an overwhelming wall of sound.

The orchestra and Rachleff were perfectly attuned to one another and to the music–the piece was grueling and cathartic for both musicians and audience. It was a stunning end to the season–and a brave one. It would have been far easier to end on an up note, with a familiar work that left the ticket holders humming on their way home.