Gaffigan conducts Ehnes- A tribute to Leonard Bernstein at Symphony Center, Chicago

Violinist James Ehnes; photo by Benjamin Ealovega
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American conductor James Gaffigan returned to Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago, on October 26th, 2017, to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with guest violinist James Ehnes, recently named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and one of the foremost violinists of his generation. Gaffigan is known for his natural ease in conducting along with the “compelling insight” of his mastery of music. He is currently Chief Conductor of the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne.

The program included Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, the only score Bernstein wrote for a film, as part of a season-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary. Ehnes, praised for his “rich, bright and muscular sound“, performed Samuel Barber’s beguiling Violin Concerto, a “lush, lyrical, Romantic piece” with the masterful control and lyrical musicality for which he is known.

Conductor James Gaffigan; photo by David Künzler and Melchior Bürgi

The first piece performed was Leonard Bernstein’s,  “Symphonic Suite” from On the Waterfront, 1955. This wonderfully coherent single-movement work begins with a pulsating opening section and proceeds with dramatic intensity to a melancholy finale. The music, written for the classic film by Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando, was described by Bernstein in a Berkshire Eagle article introducing the score: “The main materials of the suite undergo numerous metamorphoses, following as much as possible the chronological flow of the film itself.” It could be argued that the score heralds the film’s action, so closely is it associated with this famous movie’s plot. Considered one of the finest scores in Hollywood history, it tracks- or leads- a personalized account of union corruption on the New York docks.

The 5 movements begin with a dignified opening horn theme, beautifully expressed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra Acting Principal Horn Daniel Gingrich, that grows in emotional intensity and develops through a definitive rhythmically bold phase into a tragic recapitulation of the eloquent opening. The Orchestra, recently returned from touring and in top form, presented this iconic piece with rare attention to rhythm and tone; the many timpani, xylophones and other percussive instruments sounded wonderfully strong and clear. After the performance, Gaffigan sprang forward to congratulate Gingrich.

 Next on the program was Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto”, Op. 14, 1939. This 3-movement piece opens with a lyrical Allegro introduced immediately by the solo violin, and is then followed by an elegant and melancholy Andante announced by a long oboe portion. The violin enters in a contrasting theme before the oboe melody is repeated. Finally, in the Presto, a blazingly beautiful and technically demanding violin segment brings the work to its conclusion in a rhythmic outpouring of color and majesty. Ehnes delivered a wide range of eloquence amid fine articulation, seeming to rest casually at times with his 1715 Stradivarius held under his chin or in the crook of his right arm. By the end, he was blazing away with the bow, a splendid performance of this achingly beautiful piece.

Violinist James Ehnes; photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Before the intermission, Ehnes played a relatively brief solo encore, announcing from the stage, “This is the last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sonata No. 3”. The Allegro Assai from BWV 1005, 1720, at less than 4 and ½ minutes long, is a lively and bright piece of music, drenched in melody, played by Ehnes with a technical assuredness, agility, and bracing control of nuance.

Finally, the Orchestra performed Sergei Rachmaninov’s,  “Symphonic Dances”, 1941. This piece portrays a wonderful panorama of expressive emotion balanced with control and filled with emphatic dance rhythms, originally intended for the ballet. Although it is the great composer’s last composition, it has a young and vibrant feel.

In the first movement, the violins introduce the rhythm of the dance while the woodwinds establish a pulsing main theme before the tempo slows into a truly lovely melody, as of a Russian folk song with chant.

Then a dreamy and atmospheric waltz is begun, heralded by horns, retreating into divided harmonies. Ultimately, a Gregorian-style chant of somber mien is introduced, with the entire Orchestra seeming to mourn before the dance returns in a melodic chanting rhythm, bringing forth a joyous conclusion.

The splendid program was repeated October 27th at 1:30 PM.

James Gaffigan, conductor; photo by Juan Carlos Villarroel


For information and tickets to all the great performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to the CSO website




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