More than 12 years had passed since Daniel Barenboim last stood before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But Thursday evening, the celebrated conductor made a triumphant – and long overdue – return, leading the first in a set of three concerts with the orchestra in Orchestra Hall.

Serving as music director from 1991 through 2006, Barenboim had the unfortunate task of following in the footsteps of the towering figure of Georg Solti. Although he had his detractors, especially at the beginning, his tenure has come to be seen as a healthy, positive time for the ensemble.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

When: 1:30 p.m. Nov. 2; 8 p.m. Nov. 3
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets, $37-$253

Barenboim, who now serves as general music director of the Berlin State Opera and Staatskapelle Berlin, brought a welcome flexibility and subtlety to the Chicago Symphony’s playing. He was not afraid to make interpretative shifts across a group of performances of the same program.

That kind of immediacy was vividly on view Thursday evening in an enthralling, sweeping take on Bedřich Smetana’s beloved 80-minute cycle of six symphonic poems, “Má vlast (My Country)” that was infused with appropriate doses of charm, elegance and brio.

Even though the orchestra was obviously thoroughly rehearsed, there was a sense that Barenboim was shaping the performance in the moment, frequently signaling for more volume from one section and less from another.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the vibrancy and urgency that the conductor brought to the best known of the six sections, “Vltava (Moldau),” Smetana’s evocation of the Czech Republic’s longest river. Each iteration of its famous flowing theme was subtly different and compelling in its way with special attention to tempos.

Especially in the fifth poem, “Tábor,” but really throughout the work, Barenboim played up the shifts and juxtapositions in moods, textures and dynamics, bringing a relaxed delicacy to the quiet sections and kineticism and punch to the more muscular moments. The result was an interpretation that was thrillingly organic and alive.

Former CSO Music Director Daniel Barenboim leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in in Smetana’s Má Vlast, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg 2018

Former CSO Music Director Daniel Barenboim leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in in Smetana’s Má Vlast, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 at Symphony Center. |
© Todd Rosenberg 2018

Much has changed since Barenboim led his final concert as music director on June 17, 2006. He will turn 76 in about two weeks, and the orchestra has a new artistic leader and an array of new faces in its ranks, including a strong, overhauled woodwind section.

But the maestro seemed to have no trouble re-establishing a connection with his old band. And the audience was clearly thrilled to see him, giving him an extended, partially standing ovation as he made his way to the podium and took his bow at the beginning of the concert.

Forgoing a score and relying on memory, Barenboim conducted with uncommon energy, even athleticism at times, as he pounced forward, squatted down, tapped his foot to help with a tricky rhythm and even swung his leg at one point as he signaled an entrance. But at other times he was willing to pull back, leaning against the podium railing and just allowing the orchestra to play with minimal intervention from him.

A noticeable mark of old times, one that was no doubt immediately obvious to longtime symphony-goers, was the different configuration of orchestra. Just as he did when he was music director, Barenboim placed the first violins and double-basses on the left, the second violins on the right and the violas and cellos in the middle. The result was arguably a more a stereophonic sound that nicely befitted this work.

The audience greeted the work’s conclusion with cheers and a sustained standing ovation. When Barenboim returned a second time to the stage, concertmaster Robert Chen and the orchestra refused to stand – a hallowed gesture of respect that allowed the former music director alone to receive the acclamation of the audience before they finally rose to join him.

The question hanging in the air Thursday evening was: What took so long? But no matter; the ice has been broken. It seems a very good bet that we will not have to wait another 12 years before Barenboim steps in front of this orchestra again.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.