When composers seek musical inspiration, the past has always been a good starting point – whether to pay homage or to reactively break free from the stranglehold of tradition.

The composers for this weekend’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts lean toward the former, two inspired by Greek antiquity and another by Classical-era convention. But it’s not a distant retrospective: Esa-Pekka Salonen is on the podium, still one of the most forward-thinking guests on the CSO podium and serving the second half of a two-week residency with the orchestra. . He brought with him Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” and his own “Gemini” – the only CSO subscription concert this season to feature two live composers at once.

If anyone is to overturn the CSO formula, it’s the savvy Salonen, a sorely missed Orchestra Hall presence since 2018. For the first time in this reviewer’s experience, contemporary works on Thursday’s CSO program have managed to sound more meticulously curated than the headlining repertoire. work: the choir-orchestra score by Maurice Ravel for the ballet “Daphnis et Chloé”.

Even so, this “Daphnis” was no slouch. The CSO’s decades-long rapport with their guest maestro was audible from the ballet’s opening bars, Salonen’s precise rhythm coaxing a perfectly coherent murmur so sweet you might imagine from basses and harps. Ravel’s woodwind writing, always lovely, but particularly so in ‘Daphnis’, showcased the exceptional playing of English horn Scott Hostetler and guest alto flute Kelly Zimba Lukić, visiting from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

In the hands of soloist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, this ‘Daphnis’ also featured the most moving rendition of his famous flute solo I’ve ever heard – urgent at the start, dying, regaining courage and reaffirming its spirit. Like any masterful monologue, one felt invited inside the spirit behind this desolate but courageous voice. What a privilege this visit has been.

Curated by associate conductor Cheryl Frazes Hill following the mid-season retirement of former director Duain Wolfe, the Chicago Symphony Chorus sang masked and in appropriately reduced numbers; the choral part of “Daphnis” is mostly colorative, except for one a cappella interlude near the middle of the piece. The chorus still has a powerful sonic presence on stage, though at times more irregular in its blending and unity with the orchestra – as in the powerful third climax of “Sunrise,” which turned out to be more of a roll.

From an interpretative point of view, however, this “Daphnis” was extra-resplendent with riches. The score challenges conductors to carve a path through Ravel’s ultra-decadent score on relatively sparse thematic material – the leitmotifs repeat, repeat and repeat. But just because they come back again and again doesn’t mean they should be played with the same sun-melted sentimentality. Salonen reminded us that Daphnis and Chloé are lovers, yes, but they are also young. He lent rhythmic, jockey-like athleticism to “Dorcon’s Grotesque Dance,” a scene in which youngsters unite to bully Daphnis’ ponderous rival, and the bacchanalia at the end of the work was rightly, beautifully reckless.

It is hoped that Salonen will soon consider recording his version of Ravel’s most ambitious orchestral score – even if the honors go to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which he has led as music director since 2020.

The French impressionist’s music is, after all, close to Salonen as a conductor and composer. Listen no further than ‘Gemini’ – actually two pieces, ‘Pollux’ and ‘Castor’, rolled into one piece.

‘Pollux’ and ‘Castor’ are, like their namesakes, divergent personalities: the former is dignified and valiant, the latter a mercurial tumult of concerto-grosso-ish ensemble writing and complex metering. But “Pollux” and “Castor” are both united by throwback motifs, including a syncopated percussive rhythm – apparently based on a bassline Salonen heard and jotted down on a napkin in a restaurant in Paris – and cannons. extended in sections. All eloquently attest to the central thesis of “Gemini”: blood is thicker than most things, whether you like it or not.

Shaw’s ‘Entr’acte’ was a thoughtfully chosen break for solo strings before the maximalist main courses. Inspired by a minuet and a trio from Op. by Haydn. 77 quartets, Shaw originally composed the work for string quartet in 2011, expanding it for string orchestra three years later. ‘Entr’acte’ echoes this tried-and-true classic form, with the thrilling opening theme returning later after an eerie, sighing interlude.

But Shaw’s article does not place the convention on a pedestal, quite the contrary. By borrowing from the minuet and the trio, she also gives it a playful thrust, the strings bowing noiselessly at times like shod feet dragging on wooden floors. The strings of CSO nailed the pendulum of “Entr’acte” oscillating between sumptuousness and angularity, Salonen directing them without a stick and in a dangling way. Deputy Principal Cellist Ken Olsen saw the end of Entr’acte by playing the finale ad libitum pizzicato chords with poignant nostalgia.

During the long applause of the work, Salonen seemed to seek out Shaw – just 40 years old and already a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work “Partita for 8 Voices” in 2012 – in the audience. In vain: a representative of the CSO confirmed that she had not attended the concert on Thursday.

But in his analysis of the audience, Salonen probably noticed many even younger faces. As a CSO administrator confirmed earlier this season, participating students have been a central pillar of CSO’s post-closure audience — a data point that anecdotally tracks most nights at Symphony Center, and which does not seem to have been affected by the CSO. quiet lifting of its vaccine mandate on May 17. These demographics seemed even sharper during Salonen’s residency. Last Saturday’s Dessner, Stravinsky, and Ravel concert skewed the young, and at the crushing conclusion of “Gemini” on Thursday, a phalanx of about 20 or 30 attendees in my section – all apparently under the age of 25 – s rose to a standing ovation.

After the intermission, a bassoon teacher and his lanky student joined me in my row for “Daphnis.” As this room reared and heaved and pulled the sun above its verdant horizon, the teenager sat delighted, leaning forward as if praying. After his brilliant and blinding conclusion, he turned to his teacher and whispered, “That was really, really good.”

Looks to the past could have inspired this program. But his spirit was nothing less than a roadmap for securing the long future of classical music. May it prosper for a long time.

The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets ($39 to $250) and more information at cso.org.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.

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