Tilson Thomas/Capucon/Chicago Symphony Orchestra Review- A captivating concert of French and Russian music

On Thursday night, December 15, 2016, Guest Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and French cellist Gautier Capucon as soloist in a select  and memorable program at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan. The concert, whose centerpiece was Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, also featured works by Stravinsky and Saint-Saens, and was repeated on Friday, December 16th, Saturday, December 17th and Sunday, December 18th. During this time, the Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra and Music Conference was in town, and the Thursday night this reviewer attended the concert, buses of music teachers from the conference were at Symphony Center enjoying the performance.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 15, 2016


First on the program was “Scenes de ballet”, 1944, by Igor Stravinsky, subsequently arranged for piano by Ingolf Dahl who became Michael Tilson Thomas’ teacher. Tilson Thomas was thus able to deliver some engaging introductory anecdotal remarks filled with insight. He pointed out that Stravinsky loved American movies, and noted how film score-influenced sections could be heard in the ballet music. This was a 19-minute piece featuring a traditional sequence of dances loosely based on act 2 of the ballet “Giselle”; portions almost sound like a pop tune. The neoclassical music is dazzling, witty and lighthearted, with beautifully rendered solos; it had not been played at Symphony Center since 1945.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 15, 2016

Next on the program before the intermission was another 19 minute rendering,  “Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 33, 1872, by Camille Saint-Saens, played with spectacular passion by Capucon with the CSO. The youthful long-haired cellist often closed his eyes and embraced the instrument fervently; at other times, he was clearly looking about at the specific CSO members playing with him, as though keeping allies in sight. The virtuoso cellist has been called “mesmerizing”, and it is easy to see why: he is a master of tone, precise, focused, sometimes seeming to attack the cello, other moments finding him falling back into his seat with consummate grace.


The piece itself has been described as “A concerto in which the solo instrument displays every register without the slightest difficulty in penetrating the orchestra”; many composers are said to consider it the greatest of all cello concertos. Structured in one continuous movement, it contains three tightly related movements. Tilson Thomas deftly managed the CSO, allowing Capucon to surge forth with the fearsomely technically difficult and lyrically lovely work. Afterwards, cellist and conductor embraced in happy triumph.

Cello soloist Gautier Capucon with the Chicgo Symphony Orchestra on December 15, 2016

  Russian music expert Tilson Thomas had recorded in 1995 a much-lauded album for RCA Victor of his own arrangement of pieces from the ballet  “Romeo and Juliet”, Opus 64, 1935, by Sergei Prokofiev. The reviews called the disc a “watershed”, and “a feast for the ears”. Twenty + years later, the inspiration and approach is still fresh, lush, and moves with a stateliness yet joyous forward thrust.

Guest cellist Gautier Capucon plays with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, December 15, 2016

 As performed on December 15th, after the intermission, and constituting the entire second half of the program, the order of presentation, all selections from Acts 1 and 2 of the ballet, was:

-The Introduction to Act 1, “Romeo”, The Street Awakens“, The Quarrel”, “The Fight”, “The Prince Gives His Order” aka “The Duke’s Command”, “Interlude”, “The Nurse”, “Juliet as a Young Girl” aka “The Young Juliet, “Folk Dance”, “Dance of the Knights”, “Balcony Scene”, “Mercutio”, “Tybalt and Mercutio Fight” aka “The Duel”, “Romeo Decides to Avenge Mercutio’s Death”, aka “The Death of Tybalt”.


With this 44- minute performance, the selections made pursuant to his own wide knowledge of and affinity for the score, Tilson Thomas demonstrated a firm control of the balances in the orchestra. Elegant and fluid, rhythmically and dramatically driven, he brought forth the very best of this beloved work.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and cello soloist Gautier Capucon with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra; December 15, 2016

It is well known that Prokofiev had originally written a happy ending to the ballet, with the lovers “saved from death but going elsewhere” which was quashed by the Bolshoi. However, musicologist Simon Morrison, a professor from Princeton University, who gained access to Russian archives where the works were stored, located the original score, finding “3 exotic dances” and other “sexy, violent, zesty and fast portions”, omitted under duress.


The portions presented were filled with melodic invention, subtle shading and memorable symphonic orchestral invention, The CSO, under the firm and expert baton of Tilson Thomas, presented a lively and lyrical synoptic sweep. This is, after all, a ballet of young people, rash, daring, filled with passion, acting out a multitude of headlong impulse-driven acts. The music is filled with poignance and drama; the conductor and CSO brought it to fruition.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and cellist Gautier Capucon bow after the performance on December 15, 2016


For information and tickets to other great concerts by the CSO, including Special Concerts and side series, go to the CSO website


All photos by Todd Rosenberg








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