Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bernstein, Buncke and Bartok Concert Review – The New “3B’s”

As expected, Chicago Symphony Orchestra gives rich experience

Going to hear and see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra live is always such a rich experience. The CSO concert this reviewer got to attend is no exception, and fortunately it will be repeated this Saturday, January 20!

Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare was electric, clearly demonstrating a good rapport with the orchestra, and is a refreshing new addition to the world class orchestra conducting world.

A student of music may have heard of the traditional three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But now in the 21st-century one can imagine after this great concert the new three B’s could be renamed Bernstein, Buncke and Bartok, who gave us tonight even more thrilling, challenging and satisfying music more reflective of our own times.


The concert begins with Leonard Bernstein’s iconic Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Bernstein was born in 1918 so this year is the centennial celebration of his birth. Leonard Bernstein famously changed forever what American musical theater could be like with his depiction of gang warfare with love caught in the middle, set in New York City in the 1950s.

But tonight the Chicago Symphony made it come alive even though we are living over 60 years later. You felt the tension between the Jets and the Sharks in sections of this arrangement, done in the early 1960s after the show opened in 1957. You felt the tension especially when the players of the Chicago Symphony all snapped their fingers on the offbeat sometimes and yelled mambo a couple of times - yes they truly yelled - and the audience reacted with surprised laughter. The always emotionally moving songs Somewhere, Maria, Cool, and I Have a Love, together with the scary gang rumble music, end the first piece with an unresolved chord, like the drama of West Side Story.


You probably are familiar with Bernstein but maybe not Buncke, since the bassoon soloist Keith Buncke is the 24-year-old, relatively new principal bassoonist of the orchestra. He makes his concerto debut with the CSO with these performances of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. Buncke, tall and lanky standing playing the bassoon, you could say he even looks like a bassoon. But he seems to have been born to play such a beautiful and bouncy-sounding, bass instrument, it seems so effortless and consistently delightful in his hands.

He played the themes Mozart wrote in 1774 when Mozart was only 18, enjoying and expressing the optimism and exuberance of youth which 18-year-olds feel. But Mr. Buncke added his own cadenzas when the orchestra stopped in each of the three movements and played his own made-up music, cleverly exploring all parts of the range of the bassoon. One could truthfully say that whenever the bassoon is played in public, music education happens, it being so rare a treat to hear it not buried by the other louder sounds in the orchestra!


The second half of this concert was devoted to composer Bela Bartok’s bold, groundbreaking 20th century piece Concerto for Orchestra. Since a concerto is a soloist or small group of soloists playing in conjunction with a larger group accompanying, it’s unusual and groundbreaking to have each section of the orchestra get their own solo accompanied by the rest of the orchestra. In the five movement piece given us by Bartok, even the second violins, the violas, the various brass and woodwinds and string sections each got their own interesting theme. Then they all come together for a beautiful, emotionally moving chorale reminiscent of a glorious choir. Though this 20th century work was written toward the end of World War II and reflects the dissonance everyone feels in war, it winds up with a rousing optimistic conclusion.


Next and last performance - January 20, at 8 p.m.


Symphony Center
220 South Michigan



Call the CSO box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) website

ALL PHOTOS-- © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

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