Most of the guest conductors booked for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season are familiar faces: Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jaap van Zweden and Christoph von Dohnányi. But the schedule also features five maestros making their CSO debuts. This quintet of newcomers ranges from Czech up-and-comer Jakub Hrůša to the veteran Emmanuel Krivine, the incoming music director of the Orchestre National de France. Plus, three other conductors will appear on the CSO subscription series for the first time: David Afkham, James Levine and Bramwell Tovey.
Wherever conductors are in their careers, a first-time outing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s top orchestras, is an important milestone, because it thrusts them into the international spotlight and signals they are ready for the symphonic world’s biggest assignments.
“The Chicago Symphony is one of those orchestras one always dreams of standing in front of,” said Andrés Orozco-Estrada, music director of the Houston Symphony, who will lead the CSO in his debut Oct. 27, 29-30. “I am very happy to get this opportunity. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m excited and really looking forward to it.”
Along with the potential boosts in visibility come possible risks, because an unfavorable reception by critics, audiences or even the musicians themselves can just as easily set back career aspirations. David Afkham, however, believes a conductor must rise above any fears or doubts. “You have to believe in the music,” he said. “You have to be in the music and you have to know exactly what you want. And if this is the case, then normally there’s no problem with connecting with the group of people who are in front of you.”
Afkham, the German-born principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus, leads off this season’s parade of first-timers on the CSO podium, with three concerts Oct. 20-22. He first conducted his Madrid-based orchestra as a last-minute substitute in 2010-11 and immediately discovered a “special connection.” “It is a question of chemistry, and I felt very good with this orchestra,” he said. “I remember that the very first concerts together were very exciting — full of passion and great energy. And I said, ‘I’d like to come back.’ ”
Afkham will turn 33 just as he launches the CSO’s seasonlong presentation of all five of Beethoven’s famed piano concertos, leading soloist Emanuel Ax in the Concerto No. 1. Although the conductor knows Ax and reconnected with him over the summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., the two have not worked together previously. “It feels like we have already played many times together, but officially, it will be the first time,” he said.
The rest of the program will be devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Afkham likes the juxtaposition of a Classical-era work with one by the famed 20th-century Russian composer, and Beethoven is an especially good choice because he was a big hero to Shostakovich. “It is a real contrast,” the conductor said. “We have this still-early Beethoven piece. You still hear a little bit of Haydn, a little bit of Mozart, but it includes trumpets and timpani. It’s already a preview of what Beethoven will become.”
Colombian-born Orozco-Estrada, 38, who also serves as chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, traveled to Vienna when he was 19 to study conducting, and he continues to live in the ever-changing Austrian capital with his family. “It had always been my dream,” he said via e-mail, “to study in Vienna, the cradle of classical music and a city where so many important composers and musicians had lived and worked, a city with such a rich sense of tradition, full of history and an overwhelming music scene.”
He will be featured in CSO concerts that will include Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with soloist Baiba Skride. Also on the all-20th-century program are Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. “The pieces are all very different, but they have one thing in common: a strong character and personality,” Orozco-Estrada said. “They are all a bit unusual, in a positive sense.”
The choice earlier this year of the French-born Emmanuel Krivine, now 69, as artistic head of France’s national orchestra was seen as unusual in some quarters because of his reputation as a taskmaster, what Le Monde described as a “Kurt Masur à la française.” It also bucks a trend, at least in Paris, toward younger conductors. Three of that city’s other three major orchestras are led by maestros in their late 30s or early 40s.
As he often does, Krivine will steer clear of French repertory during his Nov. 17-19 and 22 concerts with the CSO. “French music, it must be dealt with, it’s very interesting,” he told France Musique earlier this year, but he conceded that his repertory in that area is “limited.” With the CSO, his program will feature Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Denis Kozhukhin, as well as works by Franz Liszt and Antonín Dvořák.
The other conductors making their CSO debuts in 2016-17:
- Fabio Biondi, founder of Europa Galante, an internationally renowned Baroque ensemble in Italy, also will serve as violin soloist for his concerts Feb. 9-11.
- Jakub Hrůša, chief conductor of the Bamberg (Germany) Symphony and permanent guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, will lead concerts May 18-20 that feature the six symphonic poems of Smetana’s Má vlast.
- Juraj Valčuha, who served from 2009 to 2016 as chief conductor of Torino’s Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai, the official ensemble of the Italian public broadcasting network, leads the CSO on June 1 and 3-4.
Unlike Afkham, who is still building his reputation in the United States, the other two conductors making their subscription-concert debuts are well-known figures. James Levine, who stepped down earlier this year as the longtime music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, regularly conducted the CSO while music director of the Ravinia Festival from 1973 through 1993 and also joined the CSO for some special concerts in Orchestra Hall. But Levine is just now appearing with the orchestra on its main-stage series with concerts Nov. 3-5 and 8. Music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000, Bramwell Tovey also has led the CSO at Ravinia. He will conduct the CSO in concerts Feb. 3-4 featuring Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
No doubt echoing the sentiments of the other first-timers, Afkham eagerly awaits his debut outing at a CSO subscription concert. “This is one of the leading orchestras of the world,” he said, “and I know the orchestra from some years ago when I was an assistant to Bernard Haitink. This is something very special to come back.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.