Following Riccardo Muti’s spring residency, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra turns to lesser-known podium names for a month, including three Latin and/or Iberian guests, one rising and two middling.
The rising conductor is Pablo Heras-Casado, 35, a native of Granada, who started out largely self-made. The son of a police officer, Heras-Casado showed musical talent early, and his parents supported him in being a chorister from boyhood on. Singing Renaissance music made him want to explore it more, especially conducting it. Hearing contemporary music had the same effect, so he founded groups dedicated to each. After Pierre Boulez chose him as a protégé at his Lucerne Festival Academy for new music, he was soon tapped for a world-wide array of guest appearances and is now the principal conductor of New York’s chamber-sized Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
All these elements were apparent in his CSO subscription concert debut Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, in a program billed as “Spanish Passion,” but not all at the same time nor in the best combinations. Heras-Casado appears genuinely engaged in the music and is not any kind of showoff. He seems to be a real listener, and on Thursday, was good at achieving balances, especially in the delicate music of Ravel and a Debussy rarity. But he put no stamp on any of the works played, slowed Ravel’s Pavanne for a Dead Princess to an almost embalmed tempo and could hold no candle to the passion that Daniel Barenboim brings to Andalusian music, such as Falla’s El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”), which closed the concert. Like Boulez, he uses no baton. This may be a mistake at this point in his still-developing career when authority is so important. A full-time position with a full-time orchestra or opera house also would allow him to build on his genuine strengths.
All three French works were orchestrations of piano pieces, two famously expanded by their composer, Maurice Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (1919) and the Pavanne (1910). The opening Tombeau was the program’s most successful work, with the dances differentiated but still needing some oomph. This also brought the first display of remarkable oboe solos throughout the concert by Eugene Izotov. In between came André Caplet’s 1919 orchestration of a 1913 children’s ballet, Le boîte a jouxjoux (“The Toy Box”) that Debussy left in piano score form before his death in 1918. Surely the composer would have done much more with this piece, filled with whimsy, quotations of other works and a fairy-tale poignance and summation. However, it was intriguing to hear this version and imagine the life and loves of the toy characters. Scott Hostetler’s atmospheric English horn solos were highlights of the 35-minute piece.
The Falla held promise, given the CSO debut of Marina Heredia, a leading flamenco singer from a prominent family in the field and like Heras-Casado, Granada born. With this set of invented “popular” pieces, a conductor can either work with a large-voiced opera singer affecting flamenco style (Leontyne Price with Fritz Reiner on the CSO’s 1963 recording, Barenboim with Jennifer Larmore in 1997) or with an authentic folkloric singer who then has to try to fill a large concert hall rather than a customary intimate cave or club. A microphone and speakers were placed onstage for the sultry, appropriately raspy-voiced Heredia but either they did not work or she did not use them properly; the contrasts of volume, expectations, and results were problematic. Orchestrally, the “Ritual Fire Dance” section had Heras-Casado turning up the heat a bit. But it’s still a chilly spring in Chicago. More, please.