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CSO in Asia: With a colossal effort, orchestra and Osmo Vänskä score Beethoven triumph

Submitted by on Jan 27, 2013 – 9:39 pm 2 Comments

Review: After a rehearsal wrinkle, Osmo Vänskä leads a vibrant performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in Taipei, and Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov adds some fireworks of his own.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Photos by Todd Rosenberg

HONG KONG – Like an army advancing from a victorious engagement, a weary Chicago Symphony Orchestra arrived here Sunday after gaining a success against long odds at the Chiang Kai-shek National Concert Hall in Taipei.

The CSO closed out the first leg of its Asia tour in Taiwan by doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) the hard way: playing this indeed “heroic” work in a single late-afternoon rehearsal with conductor Osmo Vänskä, then coming right back to it for an intensely concentrated, razor-sharp performance before a packed concert audience.

As if that weren’t harrowing enough, the rehearsal stumbled before it got out of the gate. A few measures into the opening movement, Vänskä realized his conducting score was not exactly the same version as the parts on the musicians’ stands.

It turned out Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, was using the edition the CSO had rehearsed and performed with conductor Edo de Waart in Chicago concerts Jan 17-19. But the musicians were now reading parts sent at the behest of conductor Lorin Maazel, who will conduct remaining tour performances of the Third Symphony, starting Tuesday night in Hong Kong.

The rehearsal came to a stop as Vänskä pondered their dilemma. But by a stroke of luck, the CSO librarian also had brought along the parts de Waart used in Chicago. Those pages were quickly distributed, and the hiccup was resolved.

Now the preparatory whiz through the mighty “Eroica” could begin, and flight it was. With a similar once-over in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Maxim Vengerov awaiting after the rehearsal break, there was no time for stopping and starting in Beethoven. So Vänskä simply multi-tasked, exaggerating his gestures to drive home the nuances he sought while calling out little adjustments he hoped would stick in the minds of this virtuoso band come concert time.

What unfolded in that headlong rehearsal was a remarkably coherent, propulsive “Eroica.” What ensued a few hours later was stunning: a crisp, energized, dramatically contoured performance that brought down the house. The grand-scaled slow movement at the work’s core, which Vänskä had taken at a trudging tempo in rehearsal, was distinctly more buoyant in performance, and Beethoven’s bravura finale seemed to throw off sparks.

The paying customers could never have guessed the toll that “Eroica” double-header had taken on the Chicago Symphony. But the next morning, as the musicians trekked to the airport for their flight to Hong Kong, the effects of their Beethovenian siege were clear, in body English as well as words.

Then there was Vengerov. The rehearsal had been pushed to late afternoon to accommodate the Russian violinist, who was accommodating the CSO and then some.

A last-minute addition to the Taipei concert program as the orchestra sought to compensate for the absence of music director Riccardo Muti, Vengerov flew in from Moscow just in time to rehearse and play the concert, then took an immediate flight to St. Petersburg where another performance awaited.

No doubt his presence, and his supreme musicianship, lifted the CSO’s spirits. Vengerov, 38, who stopped playing after suffering an injury to his right shoulder in 2007, only resumed public performance about a year ago. Backstage, after a dazzling turn through the Tchaikovsky, the beaming violinist said this impromptu appearance with the CSO marked his 105th concert since his comeback. Number 106 would be the next night, halfway around the world.

Next for the CSO would be its first tour rehearsal and concert with Maazel – Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The following night would bring Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”) and music they have not just in their heads and fingers, but in aching bones and joints: Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

This time it will be Maazel on the podium, with his parts on their stands. And they will all be on the same page.

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Photo captions: Home page and top: Conductor Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, shares a moment of triumph and relief after the CSO’s performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in Taipei on Saturday night. Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov rehearses the Tchaikovsky concerto with the CSO in Taipei. A flourish from the Chicago Symphony horn section. It was work clothes for some serious work as conductor Osmo Vänskä led the CSO in a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Below: With little break between a late afternoon rehearsal and their concert Saturday night at the Chiang Kai-shek National Concert Hall in Taipei, CSO musicians grabbed a picnic supper. 

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2 Comments »

  • Plush says:

    I think that the CSO musicians and staff are up to the challenge.
    Rehearsing and playing a concert on the same day are common practice in the orchestral world. Not that unusual, so I’m not sure why you propose that it is so exhausting.

    Certainly being jet lagged and out of one’s own time zone brings its own fog. CSO and Beethoven–meat and potatoes–can play it in their sleep.

  • Plush says:

    I think that the CSO musicians and staff are up to the challenge.
    Rehearsing and playing a concert on the same day are common practice in the orchestral world. Not that unusual, so I’m not sure why you propose that it is so exhausting.

    Certainly being jet lagged and out of one’s own time zone brings its own fog. CSO and Beethoven–meat and potatoes–can play it in their sleep.

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