Illuminating interpretations grace ‘CSO Lite' performance

03.12.10
Robert Spano
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

This was to have been the week the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would give the downtown premiere of resident composer Osvaldo Golijov's "Pasion Segun San Marcos" in tandem with Bach's "St. John Passion." The plan was to contrast two very different settings of the Passion text — one devout and austere, the other riotously colorful — separated by nearly three centuries.

But that inspired coupling fell victim to budget cuts. The Bach Passion was spared the ax and will go on as scheduled this weekend. Although Golijov's "Pasion" was postponed, conductor Robert Spano put another, shorter Golijov work in its place — "She Was Here"— for the revised program performed by the CSO Wednesday night at Orchestra Hall. Gone was the promised cast of thousands. What one heard instead was a lean, mean, cost-efficient CSO chamber orchestra.

"She Was Here" is a minicycle of four Schubert songs orchestrated by Golijov. Without changing the harmonies or vocal lines, he transformed the original piano parts into something akin to his own sound-world. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom the work was written, introduced it at a concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra here in 2008.

In truth, I found it hard to listen to this music again without hearing Upshaw in my head: her limpid purity of tone and acute sensitivity to words and music seem inseparable from the song settings.

That said, soprano Jessica Rivera made a pleasing soloist on Wednesday evening. Hers is a warmer voice than Upshaw's and she kept it to a confidential hush throughout the four songs, as if to present them any more emphatically would destroy their fragile sense of loss and sorrow, particularly in the best-known lied, "Nacht und Traeume."

A longtime Golijov champion whose recording of the "San Marcos" Passion Deutsche Grammophon is releasing this month as a CD-DVD package, Spano brought out the shimmers of harp, celesta and bowed cymbal in the composer's delicate orchestration. Golijov was on hand to share in the applause, holding up the score as if to tell the audience that Schubert deserved the ovation, not he.

Spano prefaced the song cycle with some unadorned Schubert, the "Unfinished" Symphony. After all the thick and heavy Schubert performances Daniel Barenboim used to give here, it was good to hear the Eighth Symphony played by a chamber orchestra of the size the composer would have known.

Clarity also was the hallmark of Spano's bracing account of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." Spano brought it to us not in the familiar orchestral suite but in the original version for 13 instruments. Each player has a great deal of tricky music to execute, and there's nowhere to hide. But under Spano's crisp command they all delivered the goods cleanly and well.