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Nott, Moser strike sparks to open CSO's new year

Johannes Moser
Ottawa Citizen

“Hello, I must be going,” was a Groucho Marx song lyric but it also characterizes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s local profile in the new year. The CSO is performing just a single week of concerts in January, before taking off on an extended three-week Asian tour with Riccardo Muti.

That Thursday night’s concert at Orchestra Hall offered performances on a much higher level than a post-holiday prep exercise for a long tour, was a testament to the players’ responsiveness to conductor Jonathan Nott, as well as a triumphant return for cellist Johannes Moser. 

Haydn’s music gets somewhat short shrift at Orchestra Hall, so it was a welcome occasion to hear the composer’s Cello Concerto in C major, played by Johannes Moser.

The German-Canadian cellist has not appeared locally in a decade—ironically his youthful 2005 CSO debut was conducted by Pierre Boulez. But Moser’s fizzing rendition of Haydn’s galant concerto should ensure that he will be invited back to Chicago much more expeditiously.

Moser is one of those rare musicians who seems incapable of playing a single bar in a dull or dutiful way. The cellist brought buckets of personality to this music, overlaying Haydn’s graceful themes with an edgy aggressive bravura that made for exhilarating results. Time and again he enlivened the score with a quick accelerando burst, hairpin dynamic turn and nervy virtuosity that brought a modern bite to the music.

Playing Wen-Sinn Yang’s clever cadenzas, Moser plumbed surprising emotional depth in the Adagio, and was off to the races in the finale. Even with its Allegro molto marking, it’s unlikely one will ever hear the closing movement played as fast as this, Moser managing somehow to maintain clean articulation and accurate intonation at lightning speed, making for exhilarating results. Nott led an alert accompaniment that followed his soloist’s tempo fluctuations and dynamic flourishes with  striking precision.

The English conductor kept skillful balances throughout, even avoiding overkill in the mock-battle scene, while the players powerfully put across the off-kilter alarums and excursions from the expanded brass arsenal. Nott and the orchestra brought an organic flow to the fleeting quotations from Strauss works  (“The Hero’s Works of Peace”), and Scott Hostetler’s Alpine-flavored English horn solo bestowed the right sense of relaxed contentment in the final bars.

Rested from the holiday break, the CSO played magnificently across all sections with notable brass contributions. Concertmaster Robert Chen’s depiction of the Hero’s Helpmate—a portrait of Strauss’s formidable wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna—was somewhat more small-scale and less mercurial than usual, though his silvery-sweet violin solo contributed apt glowing tenderness in the coda. 

Read the rest of the review here