Kodaly - Dances of Galanta
Sibelius - Violin Concerto
Ives - The Unanswered Question
Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra
Andres Orozco-Estrada, conducting
Baiba Skride, violin
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
October 27, 2016
Last night I experienced (and that’s the right word) a fantastic concert, and as brilliantly an assembled program as I've ever heard. First off, the Chicago Symphony is, what else is new, hard to describe without hyperbole. Their precision is breathtaking, with principle players of World class soloist caliber, capable of everything from hold-your-breath beauty to incisive aggression, their overall sound stretching from a plush featherbed to a rocket launch of explosive heft and color. It was all on display last night.
The program was their perfect canvas. Besides being a Dudamel-style delight to watch -- expressively animated and engaged every moment with seemingly every player -- conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada knew his stuff. The orchestra responded to the 38 year old kid (by conductor standards) by providing him with everything he needed to put forth his grand ideas.
Kodaly’s richly melodic Dances of Galanta is a crowd pleaser that gave the orchestra a chance to strut their razor sharp virtuosity right out of the gate. And speaking of virtuosi, Latvian violinist Baiba Skride showed her mettle from the hushed opening, riding just above audibility (especially in contrast to a couple of coughers tossing their bronchial tubes into the score). The performance was profound when called for and dazzling where it should be. It's a personal favorite concerto, the concert’s main draw for me, at least on paper.
I've also adored Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question since my college days, and it’s never ceased to amaze me, a great work unique in its own time -- 1906 -- and ever since. But this time, it was different, in a great way.
In a nutshell, the short (six minute) work is all about asking unanswerable questions about our existence in the unknowable universe, the quiet nothingness of the strings beneath a trumpet “asking” what it’s all about and the hectoring woodwinds answering back that, heck, they don’t know and don’t even bother asking, you dumbass trumpet, until finally, the strings fade back into the silent void.
First, the trumpet: it wasn’t around. Before it was about to ask the first question, I realized I couldn’t spot it on stage, making me wonder if I already needed cataract surgery.
But then the plaintive tone came from behind. I, along with plenty of others in the lower balcony, did a quick neck-crane to the rear, but I couldn’t spot it.
Then the next question came from somewhere else – off stage left. The third question, center back stage.
Orozco-Estrada had put the trumpets out there in the unknowable universe, out of sight but not out of mind, or ear. The woodwinds chattered their sass as the strings continued their existential ennui and the trumpets kept begging for an answer that never came.
As the strings finally faded away, the three trumpeters (instead of the usual one) quietly returned to their seats from backstage and I was ready to applaud with big-time enthusiasm, but then Orozco-Estrada made me give a tiny gasp. As the piece entered the silence, I realized that the almost-not-there low tone of the organ that begins the next work was already waiting.
I was staggered because I instantly realized what was going on.
Strauss’s (Nietzsche’s) Also Sprach Zarathustra asks the same questions and gets the same answer! Maybe it’s common for these works to pop up on the same concert program, but I’ve never noticed it. I doubt, however, that they are performed this explicitly “together,” without a break, one dovetailing into the next, extending the questions. Zarathustra’s opening notes -- AKA 2001 A Space Odyssey -- have been described as the “World riddle” theme. The work similarly ends a half hour later with the universe just as unsolved – from Ives in 1906 back to Strauss in 1896. And like the Ives begins, rising from silence, the Strauss ends, the strings fading back into the ether.
I had chills when the transition began, and when it all ended. And then I was on my feet.
Bravo Orozco-Estrada, bravo CSO, bravo Ives, bravo Strauss, and bravo the unanswerable questions that provided their muse.
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