Alternative and Conventional Energy from Muti and Chicago

United StatesUnited States  Honegger, Bates, Franck: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 3.2.2012 (JLZ)

Honegger: Pacific 231, Mouvement symphonique No. 1
Bates: Alternative Energy (CSO Commission, World Premiere)
Franck: Symphony in D Minor

One of the highlights of the current Chicago Symphony Orchestra season was this concert’s premiere of Alternative Energy by Mason Bates, composer-in-residence at Symphony Center, conducted by Riccardo Muti. The four-movement work captures the composer’s vision of the world as expressed in the way it uses energy. To show this, Bates starts with a musical snapshot of a fiddle tune from the turn of the last century, then treats the same tune as it might be heard in present-day Chicago. The final two movements are the composer’s projections of future sound worlds: one in 2112 near a nuclear factory in China, and in the last movement, a depiction of the final outpost of the human race in the twenty-third century, with sounds from a tropical rain forest in Iceland. This grim vision of the world destroying itself is a statement about the environment – accompanied by fascinating sonorities. Like some of Bates’s earlier works, this score combines synthesized sounds with acoustic ones, and the result is captivating. It is even more intriguing because of the unique effects that Bates achieves with items the composer retrieved from junkyards to augment the percussion section, evoking some of Harry Partch’s works. Yet Bates surpasses those efforts in this engaging score.

This piece was preceded by another work inspired by energy: Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1924), aurally suggesting the mechanics of trains in the 1920s. While much shorter than Bates’s work, this famous score remains effective, especially when performed as enthusiastically as the CSO did here, with a keen sense of power and drive.

For the second half, Muti conducted an entirely different work, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1888). This famous work sounded rich and colorful. In the first movement, the introductory string textures were masterfully handled, and the movement’s forward motion continued at an almost breathless pace. In the contrasting second movement the harp and woodwinds were prominent, with stylish colors, and Muti beautifully brought out those and other details. In the pause before the Finale, one could hear the sonorities resonating in the hall. The third movement was similarly convincing, but marred at times by problems in the brass. Some of the solo horn passages were, unfortunately, imprecise, and elsewhere, the trombones had an edgy quality that seemed out of place with the rest of the section. Even so, overall, Muti and the musicians gave a compelling performance.

James L. Zychowicz