All Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances in the Foellinger Great hall are festive occasions, and so was the concert of Oct. 29.
The hall was just about full, and people were still arriving when the doors closed about 7:30 p.m.; the conductor came to the podium, and the concert began. Then, after a fairly short piece, the doors were opened and a large crowd of people surged in and took some time to be seated. The result of starting on time had resulted in a significant part of the audience not hearing the opening work, entitled “Primal Message,” by Nokuthula Ngwenyama.
Ms. Ngwenyama, born in 1976 and raised in Southern California, started her career as a viola soloist, and it was not until 2015, and the composition of an earlier version of “Primal Message,” that she turned to devoting herself in a major way to composition. “Primal Message” was inspired by the Aricebo message, which was beamed into outer space in 1974 with a friendly message about the planet Earth to possible recipients. The name comes from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
“Primal Message” turned out to be a “Fantasia for Strings, Harp, Celesta and Percussion,” featuring long streams of attractive melody. The conductor of the evening was Xian Zhang, who is music director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. Zhang is a dynamic presence on the podium. She radiates waves of energetic excitement, and her flailing hands seem to control all aspects of the musical sounds issuing from the great orchestra. In “Primal Message,” Zhang encouraged the strings to maintain the high level of melodic outpourings, which were spiced by the colorful sound of cymbals, orchestral bells and xylophone.
The second work on the program was one of Edvard Grieg’s most famous orchestral pieces, the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. The suave and subtle playing of the piano part was by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. The orchestral accompaniment under Zhang’s dynamic leadership was extraordinarily loud and forceful, shaking the dust of 150 years from its well-worn pages. Trpcesti molded Grieg’s melodies with knowing and assured hands, and his entry in the second movement was sheer magic, as was the playing by the orchestra’s flutist of the lyrical melody of the finale.
Zhang in the finale gave dramatic urgency to the orchestra’s “tramp, tramp, tramp,” a pre-echo of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” later in his career. Pianist, conductor and orchestra together pushed the finale to moments of cliff-hanging excitement. After a shout-filled ovation, Trpceski played two encores, a Macedonian folk dance, “Piperkovo Oro” (“Paprika’s Dance”), transcribed by Pande Shalov in collaboration with Trpceski, and Grieg’s Waltz in A Minor from “Lyric Pieces,” Op. 12, No. 2.
The second half of the program was devoted to Serge Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Minor, Op. 111. The composer’s Fifth Symphony, which premiered on Jan. 13, 1945, ended with a heady, ecstatic pean of joy at a time when the Red Army was crossing the Vistula River and advancing towards Germany.
Three years later, at the premiere of the Sixth Symphony, the least the cultural leaders of the U.S.S.R. expected was a joyous expression of the postwar fruits of Russia’s great victory. In the Sixth Symphony, which premiered in 1947, Prokofiev did not express canned joy, and so the commissars suppressed this symphony after a few performances.
The Sixth Symphony is a big, sprawling work, and for most of its length, it is indeed a struggle between happy lyrical themes and brutal, mocking rejoinders. Perhaps the work’s dark tone had a personal origin. The composer had suffered a serious fall and concussion just one week after the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, and he never really recovered from it. Irony of ironies, Prokofiev died on the same day as his tormentor, Stalin, on March 5, 1953.
The magnificent resources of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were brilliantly deployed by compelling conductor Zhang to make this Prokofiev work a deeply satisfying experience. The finale began with a gossamer lyric theme, which is repeated at the end of the movement, only to be challenged and crushed by tragic music.
But the Foellinger audience, with a large complement of young University of Illinois students, included no commissars, and the shouts of appreciation attested to our feeling that tragic suffering deserves eloquent outcry.