Old orchestra with a fresh approach

Riccardo Chailly (above) conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Thursday night. Riccardo Chailly (above) conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Thursday night. (File Photos)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 1, 2010

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Those willing to brave the drenching rain and umbrella-shredding winds on Thursday night were amply rewarded upon arrival at Symphony Hall. The venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra took the stage with its music director Riccardo Chailly and before long, its storied string section was radiating the heat of a crackling fire.

Orchestras don’t get more historic than the Gewandhaus, whose roots stretch back to the mid-18th century, and whose music directors included Felix Mendelssohn. Decades spent behind the Iron Curtain, it is also said, had the effect of preserving its burnished Central European sound during an orchestral era otherwise marked by a flattening of regional differences.

But Thursday’s Celebrity Series appearance gave no impression of an orchestra coasting on its past laurels. These days in Leipzig, tradition has a fresh swing in its step. The ensemble is now dotted with younger players, and Chailly, the stylish and energetic Milanese conductor, has been its music director since 2005. On this occasion he drew from his orchestra an exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, cannily paced and full of passionate playing deftly corralled into a cogent rhetorical frame.

From the first movement, the Gewandhaus’s woodwind section displayed an impressively smooth blend, but it was the orchestra’s vast string section that commanded the ears, not to mention the eyes, with players through the back stands digging deeply into their strings and swaying like one organic body. Chailly knows how to build the ensemble’s darkly shaded sound from the bottom up, and he seemed to be perpetually coaxing more sound from the cellos and basses. But I was taken as well by the Gewandhaus’s smoldering inner voices, the violas and second violins, which brought to the mix not only heat but also strong rhythmic definition, highlighting some of the complexities of Beethoven’s string writing that can often go unnoticed. Chailly also intensified the rhythmic punch of many passages by foregrounding the timpani and drawing from the whole orchestra hard-jabbing accents that seemed aimed at the gut.

Before intermission came Beethoven’s “Emperor’’ Concerto, with the Canadian pianist Louis Lortie filling in for the originally scheduled Nelson Freire, who is battling tendinitis. Lortie is less of a household name but he is a compelling player possessed of a clean and graceful virtuoso technique. On Thursday night, his “Emperor’’ sounded confident, bright and steely, with the poetry perhaps a bit too confined to the slow movement, here introduced with orchestral playing of striking spaciousness and uncommon tonal beauty.

Encores capped both halves: from Lortie, a nimble dash through the last movement of Beethoven’s “Les Adieux’’ Sonata, and from Chailly and the orchestra, Beethoven’s “Prometheus’’ Overture, once again full of high spirits.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

Riccardo Chailly, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night