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French harpist shines with CSO

French harpist Xavier de Maistre performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Some composers make a point of capturing the character of their country in their music. Others like to sometimes musically conjure the sights and sounds of foreign lands that they have visited in person or via their imagination.

Both approaches were present to varying degrees Thursday evening in Orchestra Hall, as music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented an appealingly diverse program of well-known, somewhat-known and unknown repertoire.

Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” and Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” served as familiar, comfortable bookends to the evening, with two other longer works that most attendees had probably never heard filling out the interior of the line-up.

Harp concertos are unusual features on orchestral programs, but in this rarefied world Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, Op. 25, is among the more frequently performed works. It served as the centerpiece of the first half.

Written in 1956-64 in a solidly tonal yet still avant-garde vein, this concerto quickly dashes the celestial stereotypes that surround this instrument. This highly varied, atmospheric work, with sometimes sharp-edged, folk-based rhythms and darkly spare, almost ominous moments, goes much further, showing the harp to be surprisingly agile and versatile.

While the piece does contain some of the cushiony cascades of notes so associated with the harp, it also demands percussive, almost clipped plucks at the upper register of the instrument and calls for a range of other effects, including lightly brushing the strings and even tapping the harp’s wooden frame.

Displaying impressively well-honed, sure-fingered technique, French harpist Xavier de Maistre could hardly have been more at home in this work as he handled its every demand with pinpoint precision and expressive aplomb. It was his first appearance with the Chicago Symphony, and he was solidly supported by Muti and the orchestra.

The longest and most obscure of the evening’s four offerings came on the second half – Gustave Charpentier’s “Impressions of Italy.” It is one the world and American premieres (1893, in this case) that the orchestra is reprising as part of its season-long 125th-anniversary celebration.

The symphony has not performed this half-hour, five-section work since 1937, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. While the piece has its charming moments and catchy melodies, it could have used some editing and ultimately doesn’t add up to much more than a musical curiosity.

That said, the orchestra didn’t shortchange this piece, giving it a respectful, committed treatment, with Muti working hard to give full voice to its orchestral colors and maximize its dramatic impact without giving in to its occasional sentimental over-indulgences.

The composition’s clear high point is “Napoli,” the fifth section or “impression.” It is the most vibrant and variegated part of the work, with an engaging rhythmic thrust and an extended cello solo that was compellingly realized by assistant principal Kenneth Olsen.

The program opened with a suitably bright, zesty take on “España,” Chabrier’s musical pictorial of Spain with its snappy rhythms, boisterous brass and evocative colors – a perfect appetizer for the evening.

Culminating the concert was easily the best-known of the offerings – Ravel’s iterative, alluring and unforgettable “Boléro.” Muti and orchestra captured the full, earthy power of this simply constructed work, with an aptly measured build-up and a judicious, unrushed tempo.

The work provides solos for a wide cross-section of the orchestra, with each spotlighted musician nicely rising to the moment. An unusual – and successful – touch was putting Cynthia Yeh, the orchestra’s fine principal percussionist, front and center, so the audience could get a good look as she performed the insistent snare drum part that propels this work forward.

Recommended

Chicago Symphony

Riccardo Muti, conductor; Xavier de Maistre, harpist

8 p.m. Sept. 26; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29

Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets, $34-$221

(312) 294-3000; cso.org