Friday, March 24, 2017

First Encounter with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

It is a privilege to witness a performance by a great orchestra under a great conductor, especially in their own home. And so it was last Saturday, March 18th, when I attended my very first concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. And this legendary orchestra certainly did no disappoint.

Conductor and music director Ricardo Muti opened the concert with Rossini’s charming overture to La scala di seta (“The Silken Ladder”). From the first high notes by the violins, one realizes one was in the presence of a great ensemble. The very high and exposed violin parts throughout the overture were delivered with aplomb, and utterly confidence. Oboist Alex Klein played the many solos with great depth of feeling and beauty of sound. And the quality of sound of the bass section in the many pizzicato passages certainly added to the humour of the music. Muti paced the so-called “Rossini crescendos” with perfect comic timing.

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida then joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Throughout the performance, I was reminded of what a great chamber music player Uchida is. It was not only a matter of soloist playing with – or against – the orchestra. There was a blending of the sound of the piano with the orchestral textures. This was especially apparent in the many passages when the piano “accompanies” the orchestra, when she subsumed her sound into becoming a part of the orchestra.

Even today, after so many hearings, the choice of E major as the key to the slow movement still astounds me, as does the return to C minor in the third movement. Uchida’s playing of the opening of the second movement plummeted the depths this music had to offer. Throughout this movement, conductor and soloist dialogued to create an almost Bach-like intensity in this music. The performance of the third movement was sweeping, and rousing. I had not heard Ms. Uchida for many years now. She had always been a pianist that devoted much attention to every detail in the score, but it was obvious to me that she had grown as an artist; she now gives us the details as well as the larger canvas, the trees as well as the forest.  The musicians deserved every minute of the audience’s ovation at the end of the concerto.

It is difficult to judge a piece of complex music on first hearing, especially without access to the score. Samuel Adams, a young composer born only in 1985, was commissioned to write this work for the orchestra. The result, many words of love, was a highly complex score that calls for heroic work by every member of the orchestra, especially the musicians in the percussion section. It occurred to me that the work began with walls, or waves, of sound from different sections of the orchestra, but then eventually this “chaos” subsides, and the music arrives at more of a sense of order and repose. I was most impressed by the virtuosic playing of percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who rose to Adams’ challenges with aplomb.

Until this concert, I had never noticed how Brahmsian the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor (Op. 120) was. To me, the slow and dramatic opening of the movement leading to the lively melody almost foreshadows the first movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. I loved Muti’s pacing of the transition from slow to fast in this movement, as well as his pacing of the lively theme (Stringendo) of the main section, less hectic than some other conductors, and without sacrificing the sense of urgency in the music. The slow movement, a romance, featured beautiful solo work by concertmaster Robert Chen and principal cellist John Sharp. The deliberately stern-sounding scherzo was played with great energy and gusto, and in the triumphant final movement, the orchestra sounded positively radiant.

Mr. Muti has never been an acrobatic conductor. Indeed, throughout most of the evening (except for the Adams piece), his gestures were minimal. Indeed, it was as if he was inviting the musicians to participate in this wonderful and mysterious act of music making. Under conductors such as Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony was known for its “big” sound. Conductor Sir AndrĂ© Previn once said that standing in front of the famed orchestra was like standing in front of a Concorde. Under Muti, there still seems to be the beauty in the sound of the orchestra, but there is a transparency of texture that was apparent throughout the evening, even with the many layers of sound in the Adams work.

As I was enjoying the concert, I thought of all the great conductors that walked through those stage doors, from Theodore Thomas to Ricardo Muti, and so many in between. Surely all those men, each in their own way, shaped the orchestra into the truly great ensemble it is today. What a joy it was to have been able to experience this wonderful group of musicians performing together!

Patrick May
March 24, 2017

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