A few years ago, Gramophone magazine boldly presented its ranking of the world’s top 20 symphony orchestras. On that exclusive list, based on the expertise of 11 top international music critics, were all three of the ensembles that will visit Orchestra Hall in 2016-17 as part of the Symphony Center Presents’ Orchestra Series: The Cleveland Orchestra, Budapest Festival Orchestra and St. Petersburg Philharmonic. It’s a heady trio of invitees, the kind that James Fahey, director of programming for Symphony Center Presents, seeks to bring every season as part of the international series.
Each ensemble tours regularly, like the Budapest orchestra, which goes on the road for a total of 30-40 concerts annually away from its home base in Hungary. Sixty or so concerts are as many as its hometown audiences can support, so such touring is essential. “We regard ourselves as one of the leading orchestras internationally,” said executive director Stefan Englert. “Of course, we would like as well to perform in the most important venues and on the most important stages worldwide.”
For these ensembles, tour performances are a valuable way to strut their stuff, buttress their already stellar reputations and show how they measure up to their peers. “There’s always a special atmosphere when we go to cities where other great orchestras are at home,” said Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. “Of course, you want to shine. As you say in America, there’s nothing like competition. It’s good that we try to compete.”
For Chicago audiences, Fahey said, the series is a way to hear the world’s finest orchestras “at the top their game” and to compare differences in their sound and style without ever having to leave the city limits. In past seasons, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are among the ensembles that have performed at Orchestra Hall under the SCP auspices. “Performing in the home of the Chicago Symphony often brings out the best in these musicians,” he said. “While it’s somewhat rare to hear the CSO perform an encore at our main series subscription concerts, encores are a norm with these visiting orchestras.”
In addition to the ensembles themselves, audiences can experience the world-class conductors who lead them. All three of these maestros have guest-conducted the CSO, but through the SCP series, listeners get to hear them in front of the ensembles that they have meticulously curried. Besides Welser-Möst, other visiting maestros this season are Iván Fischer, a co-founder of the Budapest orchestra, and Yuri Temirkanov, the longtime artistic head of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.
Here’s a look at this season’s lineup:
Jan. 21, the Cleveland Orchestra, with conductor Franz Welser-Möst: Though Cleveland is a member of what has been historically been known in the United States as the Big Five orchestras, which includes the CSO, its hometown has faced a decreasing population base and major economic declines. But such struggles have done nothing to diminish the quality of the ensemble, which supplements its hometown activities with consistent touring, including a four-week annual residency in Miami. “Every time the city would go down economically again,” Welser-Möst said, “the community rallied behind the orchestra. So, there is a really special relationship between this community and this orchestra.” Its Chicago program will consist of two well-known orchestral works: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.
Feb. 8, Budapest Festival Orchestra, with conductor Iván Fischer and pianist Richard Goode: In 1983, Iván Fischer co-founded this ensemble with fellow Hungarian conductor Zoltán Kocsis. Because it is comparatively much younger than most of the world’s great orchestras, its No. 9 ranking on Gramophone’s 2012 list created a stir. “It was, at that time a huge surprise for the international music world,” Englert said. “Not so much for the inner circle but for the wider circle, because the orchestra is fairly young, and is not, for instance, as well-known as the Chicago Symphony.”
For its American tour, the orchestra is presenting two different all-Beethoven programs. In Chicago, it will perform Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5 as well as the Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Goode, who in 2009, recorded the complete set of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the BFO. “Richard is one of the most beloved soloists of Iván, especially with this repertoire,” Englert said.
March 5, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, with conductor Yuri Temirkanov and pianist Nikolai Lugansky: Russia’s oldest orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic was formally established in 1882, but can trace its history back more than 200 years to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society. The group has undergone several name changes, gaining its current one when the city of St. Petersburg reverted to its original name (from Leningrad) in 1991. Temirkanov has served as the group’s artistic director and chief conductor since 1988, making him one of the longest-tenured leaders of a top-level orchestra in the world.
In recent decades, the group has visited Orchestra Hall on nearly every tour it has made to the United States. This time, it will present Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. “Maestro Temirkanov brings both tremendous passion and musical tradition to these performances,” Fahey said, “which have always resonated significantly with Symphony Center audiences. We hope that they’ll continue to make music in Chicago for years to come.”
But whether an ensemble has been to Orchestra Hall many times, or as in the case of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it is returning for just its second visit, a chance to play in the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is always much anticipated. “We have a huge history in the U.S.,” Englert said. “But Chicago was not so often on our tour schedule, so we are really pleased to return this time.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra take a bow after an SCP Orchestra concert in 2010. | Todd Rosenberg Photography