Chicago Symphony Orchestra Swaggers into San Francisco with New Works

United StatesUnited States  Honegger, Bates, Franck, Schubert, Clyne: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 14.2.2012 and 15.2.2012 (HS)

Honegger: Pacific 231
Mason Bates:
Alternative Energy (West coast premiere)
Symphony in D Minor
Schubert: Entr’acte from Rosamunde
Anna Clyne:
Night Ferry (West coast premiere)
Symphony No. 9, The Great

No doubt about it, conductor Riccardo Muti has the Chicago Symphony feeling good about itself. There was a noticeable swagger to the orchestra as it set up shop in Davies Symphony Hall for two arresting concerts this week, the first for the orchestra here in 15 years.

Riccardo Muti Photo Credit Todd Rosenberg

Much has happened in Chi-Town since 1987, when Sir Georg Solti held the music director’s post. Daniel Barenboim replaced him in 1991, and Muti arrived in 2006. Under Barenboim some of us could detect a bit of tarnish in the gleam of the orchestra’s renowned sound, established securely under Fritz Reiner in the 1950s and 1960s. Other than a mildly annoying inability to get everything perfectly in tune, the sound is back. The emphasis seems to be on burnish rather than power. Every utterance holds something in reserve, which allows the brass to sound rich without a raucous edge, the woodwinds to float (especially in soft passages) and the strings to show a signature roundness (even if that sometimes takes the edge off passages in the highest registers).

Most impressive in these concerts, however, was the percussion section. It got a huge workout in Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy, the new work that anchored the first concert Tuesday. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh was the star, coaxing a range of sounds and infectious rhythms from miscellaneous automobile parts.

Muti deserves praise for programming—on tour—two spanking new works which only received their world premieres in Chicago earlier this month, by the orchestra’s composers-in-residence: Mason Bates, an American, and London-born Anna Clyne. Both share the post previously held by the likes of Osvaldo Golijov, Mark-Anthony Turnage and John Corigliano. Clearly Muti believes in this music, conducting with even more intensity than he applied to such standard repertoire as Franck’s Symphony in D Minor and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, The Great.

Muti also programmed more familiar works that linked in some way with the newer ones. He raised the curtain with Honegger’s Pacific 231, a study in using musical means to reflect powerful momentum building. The title refers to a locomotive, and it’s easy to hear, even if Honegger maintained that he added the title after he wrote the music. Muti buffed off the edges off the orchestral sound, putting the emphasis on the shifting weights of the component parts, resulting in a vital and yes, powerful performance.

Could Bates top that? Indeed he could, by layering much more; he calls his piece “an energy symphony.” Programmatically, it is about mankind’s relationship to energy, ranging from the late 19th-century junkyard where Henry Ford tinkered with building an early automobile to current-day Chicago (and the particle collider in nearby FermiLab), a nuclear plant in 22nd-century China, and (in the final movement) a post-nuclear world where nature reigns again. The music also builds in energy during each of the four movements.

Anna Clyne, Mason Bates Photo Credit Todd Rosenberg

Bates draws from several different worlds, including jazz harmonies, techno rhythms and the sampling milieu of the club DJ (a job Mason does on a regular basis). His colorful orchestrations and an irresistible puckishness make the music accessible to all but the grumpiest traditionalist. The capacity audience in San Francisco responded enthusiastically.

The first movement, “Ford’s Farm 1896,” begins with gauzy harmonies, out of which a bluegrass-style fiddle tune emerges along with jaunty rhythms featuring automobile parts found in a junkyard. Yeh creates marvelously precise propulsion on a classic Rolls-Royce radiator grille, an upended fender and occasional grinds of an old car motor crank. The fiddle tune and crank return as sort of idée fixe motifs in the remaining movements, sometimes disguised and developed musically on different instruments. In the second movement, “Chicago 2012,” sounds sampled from the actual FermiLab collider join the percussion section, controlled by Bates on a laptop at the back of the orchestra and fed through a surround-sound array of speakers. Thuds that resonate like the world’s biggest, most precise bass drum punctuate the climax. “Xingiang Province 2112” converts the fiddle tune into rising pentatonic sweeps in the strings and woodwinds, and the mysterious mists eventually part to reveal a horrific nightmare that suggests a nuclear meltdown. That gives way to nature sounds, complete with tweeting birds à la Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and hints of jungle drumming in the percussion.

Bates assembles these elements into a 40-minute piece of remarkable craft. Muti personally invests tremendous energy in conducting this music, and the orchestra musicians apply impressive intensity. The first movement calls to mind John Adams in his first forays away from pure minimalism, especially some of the sweeping gestures of Harmonielehre and the plunky rhythms of John’s Book of Alleged Dances. In a way that’s too bad, because where Bates’ invites comparison with these pieces he never quite achieves their depth. Still, Alternative Energy presents a kaleidoscopic experience worth repeating.

Muti approached Franck’s Symphony in D Minor with a similar eye toward marshaling disparate rhythmic elements into a cohesive whole. If a few details, such as horn entrances and unanimity of pitch, sometimes fell by the wayside, the overall effect sent the audience out feeling good about things.

The second evening opened with a luminous performance of Schubert’s Entr’acte from Rosamunde that breathed delicately and captured the halting, haunting side of the music. Muti chose Schubert to bookend Clyne’s new piece, Night Ferry, after advising Clyne to think of Schubert as she worked on it. If indeed she did, she ended up emphasizing the dark side, rather than the moments of relief that infuse the 19th century composer’s music. Night Ferry broods in low-register growls – barely restrained terrors punctuated by muted brass chords. The harmonies are tonal but grind with dissonance. In her program note, the composer says she explores “a winding path between explosive turbulent chaoticism and chamber lyricism.” Moments of lyricism are hard to find. The overall effect is powerfully black, an achievement in itself.

After that downer, I looked forward to the inevitable sunny climax of the Schubert Ninth to lift my spirits. What Muti gave us, however, seemed to be holding back at every turn. Muti seemed intent on revealing every detail, even toying with extra pauses for effect, a surprising tack in a finale that relies on building momentum.

Tempos, especially, went to the slow side. Normally a 55-minute traversal, this outing took more than an hour.  The opening patiently revealed the gestures that would inform the rest of the cyclical work, but the slow pace made the shift from what was supposed to be Andante to Allegro ma non troppo jarring. The Andante con moto in the second movement barely had moto, and there wasn’t a lot of vivace to the finale’s Allegro vivace.

So what we got was a Schubert Ninth that one appreciated as an antique. I, for one, admired the nuances Muti drew out—the subtle differences between one utterance of a musical motif and its next appearance, deftly placed dynamic shifts and shapely phrasing. I just wish he had gotten on the horse instead of pointing out its bloodlines.


Harvey Steiman