CSO concert bridges musical generation gap

Alisa Weilerstein
Chicago Tribune

With the Armour Stage of Orchestra Hall decorated with Christmas wreaths and bunting, you would think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would be serving the subscribers predictable holiday-related fare to match. Not this weekend. There is, in fact, just enough oddball repertory on the program to make it a balm for musically jaded ears.

The concert given on Thursday night represented a meeting of generations. The veteran Estonian conductor, Neeme Jarvi, who turned 80 earlier this year, presided. His soloist was the fiercely brilliant American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is all of 35. Age gap notwithstanding, what makes these artists kindred spirits is the commitment they share in arguing the merits of scores that, for one reason or another, languish at the fringes of the repertory.

It was that commitment, combined with alert responses from the orchestra, that made the music-making feel as festive as the stage adornments.

The program amounted to a kind of Czech-flavored sandwich, with pieces by Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak surrounding the CSO’s first performance in 65 years of Samuel Barber’s 1945 Cello Concerto.

This is the least-known and least-popular of the composer’s concertos. Barber wrote it for the Russian-born American cello virtuoso Raya Garbousova, who premiered it in Boston in 1946 and gave the CSO’s only previous performances, in 1949 and 1952. Garbousova, who died in DeKalb in 1997, was the mother of violinist and violist Paul Biss, a longtime faculty member at the Ravinia Steans Music Institute; and the grandmother of pianist Jonathan Biss.

The Cello Concerto lacks the memorable melodic inspiration of Barber’s Violin Concerto and the scintillating punch of the later Piano Concerto. Its pensive themes tend to circle fretfully around themselves, refusing to break into song in the warmly neo-romantic manner most typical of Barber.
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