A lush Zemlinsky highlights Conlon's Ravinia farewell concerts

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

For his program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night at Ravinia, James Conlon tied together several key elements from his 11 years as music director of the CSO's festival residencies.

The most important of these, from an artistic standpoint, was his advocacy of the neglected music of Alexander Zemlinsky. Back in 2007, the Viennese composer was the cornerstone of Conlon's "Breaking the Silence" series devoted to music suppressed by the Third Reich. The series broke valuable new ground for Ravinia, providing audiences with revelatory discoveries.

The mentor and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky refused to jump aboard the modernist bandwagon, instead remaining true to the Wagner-Brahms aesthetic he inherited. It's fascinating to speculate what directions his career would have taken were his music not banned by the Nazis, forcing him to flee to America, where he died, alone and penniless, in 1942.

Long believed to be lost following its 1905 premiere, "The Mermaid" did not resurface complete until nearly 80 years later. It is a marvelous piece of program music, sumptuously scored, seductively beautiful in its themes and their development across a rich symphonic palette.

Conlon cut a wide swath through Zemlinsky's orchestral, choral, vocal and operatic works via the notable series of EMI recordings he made during the 1990s in Cologne, Germany. He clearly adores "The Mermaid" (once again he conducted it from memory), and the loving manner in which he shaped the long lines, and the care he lavished on texture and detail, produced commanding results. The CSO piled on all the rich Straussian sonority it is capable of producing. Too bad the stormier pages turned harsh in the blunt, dry pavilion acoustics, the overall sound picture lacking the enveloping warmth the CSO delivered in its 2004 performances of the Zemlinsky at Orchestra Hall.

His performance gained strength and security after what sounded like a slightly inhibited start. From there on Osorio mustered enough power to drive the torrential chordal passages and he spun the melting cantabile of the slow movement within Conlon's hushed orchestral framework. The finale came off the best, taking off in bounding strides as the pianist grappled manfully with the music's heroic demands. The ungainliness of some of Brahms' piano writing didn't appear to faze him in the slightest. Conlon and the CSO nailed the score's symphonic grandeur as well as chamber-like intimacy.

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