The gala prelude to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 112th season, Friday at Symphony Center, wasn't the usual star-studded concert that patrons have known in the past. These are budget-conscious times at Orchestra Hall, and in keeping with the new austerity, big-name soloists were banished in favor of a light classical program that, in the words of music director Daniel Barenboim, had "our wonderful orchestra as its centerthey really are the star of the evening."
The CSO had only just returned from a reportedly successful residency at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. All that weighty Bruckner these musicians played for the Swiss did not leave them heavy on their feet for Friday's homecominga collection of symphonic dances ranging from Bach gavottes to an Argentine tango.
If none of these short pieces made any great technical or musical demands on the ensemble, neither did the concert turn out to be the haphazard gallimaufry it looked on paper.
Barenboim presented his selections more or less chronologically, ending with the South American dance music that reminds him of his childhood in Buenos Aires. And he made sure there were plenty of solo opportunities for his first-chair men and women.
Whether the music happened to be a Strauss waltz or a Bohemian galop, all of it went down well with the black-tie assemblage, to judge by their enthusiastic reception at the end. The audience ranks were swelled by a special group of invitees250 guests from the Chicago Fire and Police Departments. All proceeds from the dinner and concert benefited the musicians' pension fund.
Barenboim will play all four J.S. Bach orchestral suites in May subscription concerts; on Friday he offered a teaser in the form of the gavottes from the Suite No. 3 in D Major. A harpsichord was prominent amid the chamber ensemble. What really gave this music its stylish energy, however, were Craig Morris' trumpet embellishments.
Mozart was represented by a minuet from the Divertimento in D, K.334, and his Rondo for Piano and Orchestra, K.382, which Barenboim led from the keyboard. His crisp, clean pianism in the latter piece affirmed its origins in courtly dance music. Elegant turns of phrase also marked the string playing in the minuet, presented here as orchestral chamber music.
Barenboim made up for the lugubrious pacing of his Sibelius' "Valse Triste" by tearing through both a Dvorak Slavonic dance and the Moorish Slaves' Dance from Verdi's "Aida" in a way that made these pieces feel less like dances than horse races. His way with Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 was fortunately more idiomatic.
Two famous waltzes"Waltz of the Flowers," from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," and Johann Strauss' "Emperor Waltz"elicited deluxe treatment, especially from the cellos with their deep, plushy tone. Kodaly's "Galanta Dances," pulsing with the sensuous gypsy clarinet of Larry Combs, proved that, years after the Reiner and Solti regimes, our band still can speak fluent Hungarian when need be.
Barenboim's "World of Dance" odyssey ended in Latin America with rousing, full-orchestra arrangements of an Argentine tango and a Brazilian samba. While the latter was played, he left the podium, walked through the orchestra ranks, hugged a few players and tapped a suspended cymbal. A better idea would have been for him simply to have left the stage and not draw attention from the orchestra he was ostensibly showcasing.