Lina Gonzalez-Granados returns to CSO podium with top-notch Beethoven program

For the second time this spring, Gonzalez-Granados took the CSO podium as a last-minute replacement for Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test.

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The CSO’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice Lina González-Granados leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

The CSO’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice Lina González-Granados leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Copyright Todd Rosenberg Photography

At Wednesday night’s Grant Park Orchestra concert featuring a concerto by the African American composer Florence Price, conductor Carlos Kalmar decried classical music’s neglect of gifted female composers and conductors. “How many female conductors do you actually know?” he asked the audience. Their silence made his point.

At Thursday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, Colombian American conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados made her own point. For the second time this spring, she took the CSO podium as a last-minute replacement for Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test. With only eight hours’ notice and one-half a rehearsal, she led the CSO in confident performances of two bedrocks of the repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Brahms’s Symphony No 1.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin soloist; Lina Gonzalez-Granados, conductor  

CSO review

When: 8 p.m. June 17 and 18

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $39-$399

Info: cso.org

(As the CSO’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice, Gonzalez-Granados also stepped in for concerts in April when Muti first tested positive for COVID. Onstage Thursday night, Jeff Alexander, the orchestra’s president, told the Symphony Center audience that Muti’s symptoms were “mild” and his spirits “high.” With luck, Muti will be recovered in time for upcoming concert performances of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and the free Concert for Chicago in Millennium Park June 27.)

Of course, Gonzalez-Granados was leading world-class musicians, including super-star solo violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who have played both of Thursday night’s pieces countless times. But a conductor’s imprint is always important, and she had her work cut out for her in the abruptly shifting moods of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night at Symphony Center. 

Soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of conductor Lina González-Granados on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Copyright Todd Rosenberg Photography

Making the most of her lean, golden violin tone, Mutter shaped her solo lines into something extremely intimate. Gonzales-Granados set the mood in the opening bars, giving the gentle timpani strokes and wind melodies ample time to breathe yet not allowing them to drag. This concerto has plenty of opportunity for flashy virtuosity, but Mutter had no interest in simply fancy fiddling. Her intricate solo lines, sometimes scaled down to the merest whisper of sound, sustained an atmosphere of a soloist deeply immersed in private conversation, often with herself.

Swirling away from the orchestra in the first movement, her solos often floated like aural lace, delicate and airy yet clearly etched. During quiet moments, a hint of loneliness crept into Mutter’s playing. Ascending to a high note, Beethoven’s music became a kind of lamentation, the phrase momentarily suspended, not certain that the longed-for goal could be achieved. In the somber second movement her playing became positively unworldly. Like a grieving ghost, she hovered over the orchestra, hesitant, unsettled, flying away into flights that brought her little solace. The orchestra accompanied her like an empathic friend, the strings sustaining her with a gently reassuring pizzicato pulse, the soft-edged winds offering comforting murmurs.

But the concerto also bristles with Beethoven’s typically forceful, short-breathed phrases. Maintaining a coherent flow between Mutter’s introspective violin and the CSO bursting into full-throated swagger is not easy. For the most part Gonzalez-Granados succeeded admirably. Throughout the concerto, she emphasized the lyrical sweep of Beethoven’s music, integrating its shifting emotions into a cohesive whole.

The soaring, romantic melodies of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 were an ideal showcase for Gonzalez-Granados’s ability to sculpt rich, heartfelt orchestral sound. She had no chance to rehearse the CSO herself, and balances were sometimes off. Brasses were occasionally too loud, and in the opening pages, the surging unison strings lacked a distinctive profile.

But the mood was serenely relaxed as solo winds rose and fell in lyrical song in the first movement. Brahms’s expressive melodies seemed to glow as CSO principal players — notably Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson, oboe William Welter and clarinet Stephen Williamson — passed musical phrases among themselves. The more light-hearted third movement was both buoyant and hefty, with motifs tumbling energetically from one set of orchestral voices to the next. In contrast, the final movement was full of majesty and excitement, prompting the audience into prolonged cheers.

Gonzalez-Granados’s CSO tenure has been tumultuous. She arrived as Solti Conducing Apprentice in February 2020 just before the pandemic hit. COVID is still a factor as she closes out her appointment this month. Replacing Muti in April and this weekend, she became the first Latina conductor to lead the CSO.

In July she begins a three-year appointment as resident conductor at the Los Angeles Opera. With her obvious podium skills, she is on her way to a vibrant career. If all goes well, future audiences actually will know the name Gonzalez-Granados.

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