Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Asher Fisch
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

The musical logic behind the program presented by Chicago Symphony Orchestra this weekend at Symphony Center seems clear enough.

Pierre Boulez, the originally scheduled conductor, set out to trace the evolution of the German-Austrian tradition from the chromatic yearnings and restless modulations of Richard Wagner through Gustav Mahler and beyond. Mahler's music summed up the advances of late Romanticism while pointing the way to the dissolution of tonal harmony and the advent of modernism as represented by Arnold Schoenberg's music.

Although the ailing Boulez was unable to preside over the first concert of the series on Thursday night, the Israeli-born conductor Asher Fisch, who substituted for him, did so most capably; indeed, he and the orchestra made this study in musical influences stimulating to both ear and mind. And Michael Barenboim, who was making his CSO debut as soloist in Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, clinched the success.

The concerto, composed in 1936, harkens to Wagner in its huge orchestration and to Mahler in its deep longing and whiffs of old-world Vienna. Schoenberg's rigorous if flexible use of the 12-tone language is not its most challenging aspect. The three movements are dense with prickly fiddle acrobatics that stretch a violinist's technique to the limit. Schoenberg once joked that a fiddler needs to have an extra finger on his left hand to play this music.

Barenboim, 28, is the son of former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and his wife, pianist Elena Bashkirova, although his biography makes no mention of the fact. The younger Barenboim (who had appeared here with his mother and other colleagues of the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 2008) clearly wishes to be taken on his own merits. Which are considerable, to judge from Thursday's superb performance.

He made the gnarled lyricism and awkwardly written cadenzas sound absurdly easy to play, varying his bow pressure to suit the varying intensities of the music. You could read his deep emotional engagement in his playing even though his facial expression remained impassive. After so stunning a performance, who could blame the audience for erupting in cheers?

Fisch's alert, crystal-clear command of the teeming orchestral textures was something both Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, Fisch's early mentor and champion, would have admired. Here was a performance good enough to convert doubters who had no use for Schoenberg's music when Barenboim senior conducted it here and who still may reject it.

Schoenberg was one of the composers Mahler's widow, Alma, approached about completing the orchestration of her late husband's Symphony No. 10. Schoenberg refused, although several others have since made performing editions of the entire work. Fisch gave us only the Adagio movement Mahler left substantially complete. He laid out the spacious paragraphs in such a way as to emphasize the harmonic portents of Schoenberg's brave new world.

Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" and "Parsifal" Prelude completed the program. Not the best Wagner to illustrate the modernist connection (something from "Tristan und Isolde" would have been more apt), but beautifully played nonetheless. The "Parsifal" excerpt made a superb closing piece, with the mighty CSO brass choir sounding the majestic "Dresden amen" chorale and Christopher Martin's trumpet rising from the wash of solemn strings.