Barenboim's son makes a memorable debut with the CSO

Asher Fisch
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

Pierre Boulez may be recuperating in Europe, but the very positive presence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s legendary conductor emeritus has been felt at Orchestra Hall these past two weeks.

Except for the swap of one piece last week, Boulez’s carefully and provocatively planned programs have remained unchanged. Replacement conductors were engaged who share his interests and respect his taste. Soloists stayed in place, and perhaps best of all, two young artists made extremely memorable debuts and boosted listeners’ confidence in the future of classical music concerts, even those of the most difficult repertoire.

This week’s CSO subscription concerts saw as exciting a first appearance by an instrumental soloist as I can recall in years when Michael Barenboim, 27, was the soloist in the fiendishly challenging and lushly romantic 1936 Schoenberg Violin Concerto on Thursday at Symphony Center. The son of former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and the pianist Elena Bashkirova, he has been familiar to Chicagoans since his high school years as concertmaster and chamber musician with his father’s West-Eastern Divan Arab-Israeli orchestra.

Having chosen to follow his maternal grandmother’s route to the violin the younger Barenboim has done so in a way that carries on his parents’ and his own intellectualism and their intense musicality. As does this week’s conductor, the Munich-based, Israeli-born Asher Fisch, another Barenboim associate, the violinist sees the Schoenberg, even with its 12-tone compositional technique, growing out of Brahms’ attempts to carry on the classical and Romantic traditions.

The Schoenberg was largely ignored by latergenerations until Christian Tetzlaff toured with it in the late 1990s. Since then, Nikolaj Znaider (soloist in the last CSO performances, nine years ago) and Hilary Hahn have shown what the current generation can do with a piece whose own composer said required the soloist to have a sixth finger on the left hand. Barenboim has worked on the piece with Boulez and another eminence, Michael Gielen, and demonstrates his attachment to its lines and sounds and his full analysis of the three-movement, half-hour often wave-like work. He wholly carried the sharp rhythms, tough harmonics and tantalizing blend of logic and unpredictability of the part. Fisch and the whole ensemble reminded us of just how beautiful Schoenberg’s orchestration can be. Barenboim was called back for a rare fourth curtain call. He deserved it, and let’s hope he will be back often in what could be a major career.

The rest of the concert contained Boulez favorites that are also close to Fisch’s heart. Wagner’s opening “Siegfried Idyll” received a transparent and beautifully lulling chamber presentation and the closing prelude from the composer’s “Parsifal” was an opera-sized, full-throated performance that also respected Wagner’s pianissimos and silences. Fisch, who is playing Wagner literally around the world in this bicentennial year, had just led the last two performances of the full work earlier this month at the Metropolitan Opera, and the connection was deeply felt. He also gave the 1910 adagio from Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony, a heartbreaking piece not heard here since Gielen in 2001, a wholly sympathetic treatment — no easy feat to do so with all three of these deeply related but unique composers.

Trumpet Christopher Martin was an essential actor in the Mahler and the “Parsifal” prelude, as was the full brass cohort. Seven principal players sat out the Schoenberg, a shame for them more than for the audience, as it turned out.