Frayne Chicago Symphony Orchestra

David Afkham, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leads a concert Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

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The concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Foellinger Great Hall on Oct. 26 was a stunner. The level of playing was revelatory, and the climactic moments of the music were gloriously unforgettable, a high water mark in this listener’s experience in the concert hall.

Actually, we heard three CSOs in the course of the evening. In a Haydn Symphony, we heard a chamber orchestra. In a Richard Straus tone poem, the orchestra looked enormous and stage filling. For the Brahms Symphony, we heard an ensemble of the usual size for a late 19th century symphony.

The conductor of the evening was the young David Afkham, who was born in Freiburg, Germany, in 1983. Afkham has just been named chief conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, and aside from his Chicago guest appearances, he has conducted many of the major orchestras of this country and Europe, and he has led opera productions at Great Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival.

From the opening notes of the Haydn Symphony No. 44 in E Minor, “Trauer,” (“Mourning”), the orchestral players responded to Afkham’s expressive gestures with superb ensemble, extreme clarity and subtle gradations of phrase and dynamics. In Haydn’s music, there is nowhere to hide, and the CSO players, especially the strings, performed at a superb level. Haydn was said to desire the slow movement of this symphony played at his funeral, but Napoleon’s victorious army’s occupation of Vienna in 1809 upset any special funeral arrangements. In the event, at a grand memorial service, W.A. Mozart’s famous “Requiem” was performed.

Richard Strauss’ early tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration,” describes the feelings of an idealistic person yearning for the fulfillment of his ideals at the point of death. Counting the coaches in one’s funeral procession would have seemed odd for a 24-year-old Strauss, but he was then under the spell of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde,” and Isolde’s climactic “Love Death” was much on Strauss’ mind.

With Strauss tone poems, one expects orchestral splendors as well as musical complexities, and David Afkham led the orchestra through a marvellous performance. The section depicting the onset of death was terrifying in its intensity. The flute and clarinet solos in the peaceful segments were enchanting. The “transfiguration” motif was intoned earlier on by the horns, and what sweet toned horns! In the final triumph of “transfiguration,” the horns and other brass led on to a glorious processional. And just as you thought “This cannot get any better,” there was an ultimate outburst which was stunningly beautiful, and the final passing away of the music into silence was beyond eloquence. The CSO’s eminence in the music of Richard Strauss goes back to the years of Frederick Stock and Fritz Reiner’s history-making recordings of the 1950s. This performance surely carries on that tradition.

After intermission came an eloquently played reading of Johannes Brahms’ melancholy, autumnal Third Symphony. This Symphony could not challenge the Strauss tone poem in thrills, but it could triumph with its own dark pallet of subtle emotions.

Opening with a bang, the first movement of this work ends softly, and even the finale, which indeed had some turbulent passages, concludes softly. Conductor Afkham skillfully led the orchestra through Brahms’ sudden changes of mood. At this concert, what stood out for me was the exceptionally radiant playing of the horns led by David Cooper, principal. His performance was so full of delicate nuance, that it was a wonder to experience.

At the gloriously mellow ending of the Brahms Symphony, the audience quickly arose in a frenzied ovation. Conductor Afkham called for bows from the woodwinds, horns, trumpets, trombones and strings, as the applause went on and on. But, with all those Interstate 57 miles ahead of them, the conductor and players finally bade us farewell. May they soon be back!

P.S. YouTube has a segment of Afkham conducting the Strauss tone poem at an Oct. 25 performance in Chicago’s Symphony Hall, the night before their performance at Foellinger.

John Frayne hosts 'Classics of the Phonograph' on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.