On Thursday, October 24, 2019, German-born Guest Conductor David Afkham led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an intensely deep, eloquent and moving concert at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, in a program to be repeated October 25th and 29th.
Maestro Afkham, recently named chief conductor and artistic director of the National Orchestra and Chorus of Spain, is quoted in CSO Sounds and Stories as having said that he believes the legacy of Teutonic composers “are steeped in my blood”; this evening, Orchestra Hall was enriched by his conducting music of Haydn, Strauss and Brahms.
– Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 44 in E Minor (Mourning), 1772
Legend has it that Haydn requested that the slow movement of the Mourning Symphony actually be played at his own funeral. This is an atypical mourning captured in musical form- not a traditional funeral march, and not exactly a reflective work.
Actually, there is embodied a sense of conflict and tension in the opening movement, strategically conducted by Afkham, with the CSO in large ensemble, to convey intense dynamic contrasts which cast a feeling of urgency, and towards the end of the movement, destabilizing tones.
The second movement Minuet brings back counterpoint and a brighter mood, and the Adagio gives us the calm, contemplative feel one expects to reach in mourning. Ultimately, Afkham brought the CSO to a remarkable finale, brimming with almost nervous energy, the very essence of turmoil and stress.
– Richard Strauss Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24, 1888-89
Despite the fact that Strauss himself wrote that Death and Transfiguration was utterly a work of his imagination, the story persists that the piece was derived from the composer’s experience of near fatal illness. What is certainly the case is that this is a most dramatic and expressive symphonic work, based on the poetic inspiration of a young man struck down in the flower of his youth.
Death and Transfiguration begins with quietly throbbing timpani and strings, as though demonstrating infection in the bloodstream. As the imagined heart fails, and the fever ascends, we are called upon to envision the regret of lost idyllic goals, a looking back with nostalgia upon favorite memories, and the struggle to overcome. All of these feelings are personified by the turbulent, upsetting, volatile music.
With the realization that the specter is actually upon him (or, as Strauss describes, “death seems to knock at the door,”) the rhythms almost become overwhelming, deliberately wrought by persuasive timpani and the brazen blaring of the superb CSO brass.
The ultimate transformation to which all life is subject arrives in the climax of the piece. As Afkham swept his arms aloft, the music rose in glissando, falling away to a deliberate hush accompanied by a quietly compelling low tonal C that emanates from the very core of the Orchestra, emphasized by solemn gongs. Next, an earlier inspirational and majestic theme is brought back to ascend slowly- beginning with utterly lovely horns- to lead us into the transcendent coda.
Afkham compelled all of the rich complexity inherent in Strauss’s orchestration; drenched with orchestral color, listeners were shown a vision of death and ascension to the spheres, immaculately performed.
– Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90, 1883
Afkham’s direction and the CSO’s performance of this work was gripping and spirited, a totally absorbing and enthusiastic account of the great 3rd Symphony. It certainly appeared that there was a strong rapport between Maestro and the Orchestra, with distinguished and committed playing from beginning to end.
The first movement was driven headlong with a commanding sense of urgency that never was overblown, interspersed with carefully enunciated periods of repose. This conductor demonstrated a thoroughly confident ability to draw exceptionally fine phrasing from the responsive Orchestra.
The Andante had a particularly natural flow with the eloquent wind principals delicately handling the opening phrases. The Poco allegretto seemed filled with longing, the finale commanding, the whole symphony projecting a fine air of spontaneity.
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