Chicago Symphony Orchestra Shostakovich/Berlioz Review-Symphonie Fantastique in Extremis

Stephane Deneve

Tuesday, December 10’s performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Chicago’s Symphony Center featured an unusual program, composed primarily by the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitry Shostakovich and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, two pieces which share very little in common but whose contrast gave a diverse flavor to the performance.

This was the third and final performance of the concerts conducted at Orchestra Hall by French conductor Stèphane Denéve, but this final program differed from the two which preceded it in the use of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto as opposed to Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, which was featured in the first two programs. The Cello Concerto’s soloist was 21-year old Chicago area native Gabriel Cabezas, a young phenom who has already made quite an impact in his young career, touring around the United States and performing with several major U.S. orchestras, but this was his first performance with his hometown’s legendary ensemble.

Cellist Gabriel Cabezas and Stephane Deneve

The Shostakovich Cello Concerto was an intense experience, far from a staggering work but filled with the personal input that characterizes Shostakovich’s work; staccato beats, sections that veer between rhythmic and arrhythmic, and a feeling of sadness punctuated by bursts of intense rage, along with traditional lyric beauty. The sound of the orchestra pares down to give way to the cello’s lengthy unaccompanied solo, a lonely lament. Cabezas was an intense soloist, but he also displayed a great deal of tenderness and sensitivity in his playing, even at this relatively early stage.

Gabriel Cabezas

The evening’s piece de resistance was the Symphonie Fantastique, written by Berlioz at the age of 27 in 1830, a work whose popularity was never surpassed during his lifetime or after his death for popularity in his oeuvre. The work is famous because of the semi-autobiographical events that caused Berlioz to conceive the work, which acts like incidental music to a scenario that Berlioz himself conceived, evidence of Berlioz’s literary ambitions and influences which would define his career almost as much as his music.

Stephane Deneve

From the beginning of the CSO’s performance, it was clear that Maestro Denéve was attempting to shake up the piece. Though his choices were probably not arbitrary, it seemed as if Denéve was arbitrarily creating huge contrasts between soft portions of the piece and loud, sometimes crunching crescendos. At times, like his speeding up and placing an exaggerated accent on the string portion of the finale of the second movement, this worked brilliantly; in other parts, such as the first crescendos of the first movement, and especially his use of the brass in the final two movements, it was less effective.

It seemed as if Denéve felt like a kid in a candy store when he got his hands on the CSO’s renowned brass section, which dominated the proceedings in the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath. But the effort he wrung out of the orchestra was incredible. In sports, we sometimes hear about teams who “leave everything on the field,” meaning they gave a maximum effort for the entire game regardless of whether they win or lose. In this approach to the Symphonie Fantastique, it’s up to the audience whether the orchestra won or lost, but there was little doubt as to whether they left everything on the field.

The program began with Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to The Ruler of the Spirits, a pleasant introduction that served to warm up both orchestra and the audience.

 Chicago Symphony Orchestra,

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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