CSO weaves a tapestry of sounds

David Alan Miller
Chicago Sun Times


A fine tapestry of sounds and colors was woven Wednesday night by the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by David Alan Miller in a special appearance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

As the first of two free outdoor concerts that conclude Millennium Park's Blockbuster Week and continue the yearlong Silk Road Chicago celebration, the event drew an enthusiastic audience, who braved the inclement weather to hear the CSO and guest soloist Betti Xiang, performing on the ehru, a traditional two-string Chinese fiddle.

The program, skillfully attuned to the occasion, featured the signature mixing of Eastern and Western influences of the Silk Road, made here particularly relevant by the 1959 concerto "The Butterfly Lovers" by Chinese composers Chen Hang and He Zhanhao. Inspired by a centuries-old Chinese romantic folk tale, it's a work as popular in its homeland as it is virtually unknown here.

The program also included two beloved titles of the Western classical music canon, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" overture and Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique," which were rescued from their hyper-familiarity and usual blockbuster effect by the crisp, unsentimental reading offered by these superb musicians and Miller.

Tchaikovsky's overture set the tone, with Miller's intense but precise gestures guiding and containing the swelling of the orchestral sound in beautifully molded melodic phrases and cleanly shaped rhythmic patterns, which exposed the music's harmonic richness and made it all the more effective.

Despite the problems posed by the use of outdoor amplification, Miller used the full dynamic palette well, summoning delicate pianissimos and well-balanced crescendos from all sections of the orchestra. He built momentum through the evocations of the work's familiar "love theme" toward the organ-like sonorities of the finale.

A radiant Xiang took center stage for "The Butterfly Lovers," claiming for her ehru the part composed for violin in imitation of the traditional Chinese fiddle. She mesmerized the audience as much with her virtuoso performance as with the instrument's plaintive voice-like quality.

What came to life in the riveting dialogue between soloist and orchestra was a continuous piece of music in three long sections, compellingly infusing the Western symphonic forms with the Eastern sonorities of the pentatonic scale, and with highly expressive musical gestures derived from the Chinese operatic tradition.

The second part of the program, devoted to Berlioz's expansive symphony, was as successful. Again, the amplification made it arduous to listen for nuances of sound and interpretation, but what came through was nevertheless eloquently satisfying. The piece served naturally as a showcase for CSO's impressive principal players.

Miller and the CSO made sure that nothing got lost of Berlioz's inventive dramatic construction and colorful harmonies and orchestration, attacking each of the five sections with renewed energy and precision, and bringing the work, after the frenzied witches' dance, to a majestic close.