The Chicago Symphony Orchestra might be the star attraction most weeks, but it is not the only orchestra to perform at Symphony Center. Since the advent of Symphony Center Presents in 1997 and decades before via earlier presenting arms, it has hosted an assortment of visiting orchestras from around the world each season.
In part, such engagements serve as a kind of a simple quid pro quo. When the Chicago Symphony tours regularly to other countries, concert halls and presenters put out the welcome mat, and the orchestra wants to return the hospitality.
In addition, the concerts give audiences a chance to hear other fine orchestras and compare and contrast playing styles and tonal variances. “For years, there used to be distinct sounds from different orchestras from around world,” said James Fahey, director of programming for Symphony Center Presents. “I think that is still a part of the fascination, and one of most interesting parts of hearing an orchestra in this building is how each of these orchestras can take on their own character, be it the French woodwind sound or the German string sound.”
Finally, touring orchestras give audiences a chance to hear conductors who might appear as guest artists with the CSO at the helm of the orchestras with which they have a deep, ongoing relationship as music directors.
The Symphony Center Presents’ 2014/15 Orchestra Series features three ensembles that are all making their debuts in Orchestra Hall: Oct.18, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Feb. 20, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and April 24, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.
In addition, Symphony Center Presents is offering a special non-subscription concert on Nov. 2 featuring the China NCPA Orchestra, founded in 2010, which is making its first tour to the United States.
“In the last couple of years,” Fahey said, “we’ve tried to keep the Orchestra Series to three concerts just to keep some semblance of stability for our subscribers and what they expect on the subscription series.”
Providing an additional thread among the four concerts is that each will feature a keyboardist as soloist, including such heavy-hitters as Hélène Grimaud, who is joining the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Yuja Wang, who will appear with the China NCPA Orchestra.
In scheduling for the Orchestra Series, Fahey has to rely in large part on what ensembles are touring in any given season. Given the enormous cost of taking 100 or so musicians and a support crew on the road and the challenge of securing corporate sponsorships or other financial support, most orchestras travel on a limited basis if at all. In addition, Chicago gets fewer touring orchestras because of its central location. Sometimes, traveling orchestras will visit just New York or the East Coast and skip the Midwest entirely.
Fahey selected these three orchestras because of their history, their music directors and their touring programs. The Seoul Philharmonic held particular appeal, because the CSO recently made its debut in Korea, and its music director, Myung-Whun Chung, is a frequent guest conductor in Chicago.
A primary goal is to schedule as broad a mix of international orchestras as possible. Although the Orchestra Series has presented such American orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, the emphasis has been more global than domestic.
“We’re still interested,” Fahey said, “in having those [American] orchestras come to Chicago if we can work out schedules and finances, but I do think that since we have this amazing orchestra in Chicago, the situation has be right for us to bring other American orchestras. We’ve had those situations, and I hope we will again. But in the meantime, we are primarily getting touring opportunities made available to us by international orchestras.”
The SCP 2014/15 Orchestra Series (all start times at 8 p.m.):
Oct. 18, London Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Vladimir Jurowski and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Founded by Thomas Beecham in 1932, this top-level British orchestra has been headed by many famed conductors, including Georg Solti, former CSO music director. Vladimir Jurowski, a strong-willed, fast-rising, 42-year-old Russian conductor, has served as its principal director since 2007. Its Chicago program will consist of composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Shostakovich’s Symphony 8.
Feb. 20, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Hélène Grimaud. The 96-year-old Dutch orchestra’s international reputation was enhanced in 1995 with the appointment of famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev as music director. Nézet-Séguin, who is also music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, took the helm of orchestra in 2008 and has built on Gergiev’s success, which includes signing a contract in 2012 with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. The orchestra’s Chicago program will feature Dutch composer Rudolf Escher’s Musique pour l’espirit en deuil (“Music for the Spirit in Mourning”) (1941-43), Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.
April 24, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and pianist Sunwook Kim. Since taking over as music director in 2005, the internationally recognized maestro Myung-Whun Chung has significantly elevated the South Korean orchestra’s worldwide stature. Since 2007, it has boosted its international concertizing, including a North American tour in 2012, with a stop in Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall. In 2011, it became the first Asian orchestra to sign a multi-disc recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Its Chicago program will feature Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor) and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.
Special visiting-orchestra performance:
Nov. 2 at 3 p.m., China NCPA Orchestra, with conductor Lu Jia and pianist Yuja Wang. Established in 2010, this up-and-coming ensemble is the orchestra-in-residence at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Lu Jia became principal conductor in 2012. For this tour, the orchestra will be joined by Wang, a technically gifted, 27-year-old, Chinese-born pianist who has quickly become a star on the international classical scene. For the orchestra’s Chicago visit, she will be featured in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Also on the program will be Qigang Chen’s The Five Elements Suite for Orchestra and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8.
PHOTO: Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. | Photo by Robert Torres