Muti’s Chicagoans Deliver Superb Brahms in Walt Disney Concert Hall

United StatesUnited States Brahms: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 22.10.2017. (DD)

Brahms – Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90; Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73

It’s fair to state that the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra is among the most progressive and experimental orchestras in the world. The mix of styles and genres has continued unabated since the tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who assumed stewardship of the institution in 1992. The performance repertoire of the orchestra has grown younger and hipper (a good thing for a symphony orchestra), but nonetheless maintains an admirable mix of new and traditional. And in the case of Salonen, it helps when the conductor is an eminent composer in his own right.

This driving aesthetic philosophy has successfully migrated to the Dudamel tenure, made even richer with his adoption of an El Sistema-styled training program (based on Venezuela’s praised youth program). In addition, there has been a plethora of new and commissioned pieces and experimental dramatic stylings, found most often in the fantastic Green Umbrella series.

Thus, when a concert features the Chicago Symphony under Riccardo Muti, performing Johannes Brahms Third and Second Symphonies (even the performance order looks backwards), it almost seems a novel and intrepid happening.

And indeed it was. Of the two works, the Third Symphony (1883) is more broadly embracing and expansive. It is often touted as Brahms’ sunniest symphonic work (though I’d vote for the Haydn Variations). The Third has its dark side, sometimes searching, often brooding, but it is ultimately a work of acceptance. Accepting of what? the missed opportunities of life? love lost? the bleak but inevitable process of age?

All that and much more are in the symphony, brought beautifully to life by this great orchestra and its great conductor. The three-chord opening (a motif found in other Brahms work) is grand, but that grandeur quickly morphs into a style that says ‘pastoral’: earthy dance figures, humorous play and the always-present hemiola (a cross-rhythmic two-in-three/three-in-two figure, melody or other such device). When I hear Brahms performed, I hear richly integrated instrumentation; when I­ see Brahms performed, the individual orchestral sections stand out: the rich string presence, often humorous woodwind segments, quirky but serious brass tropes and even turns on the tympani dot the score. The entire Symphony presents these gyrations regularly, but there are three particular players (in both symphonies) who deserve to be cited for their breathtaking (no pun) solos: Acting Principal Horn Daniel Gingrich, whose playing defined dignity; Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson whose oh-so-long solos (there were many) seemed to suggest either lungs that define expansive or a kind of circular breathing; and flutist Stefan Ragnar Höskuldsson, whose tone colors traversed a fine and wide spectrum. The Chicago Symphony has always been regarded as an orchestra of great power; in many of these passages their fine delicacy exuded intimacy. Brahms the formalist surely had his swinging side.

The pleasures of the Third Symphony easily spilled over through intermission into the next offering on the program: Brahms Second Symphony (1877), first performed six years before the Third.

This symphony is serious from first downbeat to final cutoff, but that in no way stops the composer from offering sections of sweet gentleness and play, especially in the third movement. Here Muti literally danced alongside the concertmaster, even offering him a sly grin. Grins never seemed to be a Muti modus operandi. The Second is a model of wit and charm placed in a context of serious reality, even profundity, and is mixed with lyrical, gently accompanied, melodic material. The opening is as simple as can be, but the motif of those four notes infects and ultimately defines the entire piece.

One might question why the symphonies were offered in reverse order of composition. The Second is certainly the bigger work and concludes heroically, as opposed to the more concise Third with its final sense of contentment and acceptance. That didn’t stop Muti from concluding the concert with a most intimate, gauzy, delicate and dreamy rendition of Schubert’s Incidental Music to Rosamunde, D.797. Schubert himself was fond enough of the tune that he reused it in two other compositions. It’s seldom heard at symphonic concerts, and it came as a lovely gift from this great institution and its magnificent conductor.

Eric Bromberger’s preconcert lecture in the Philharmonic’s Upbeat Live series was smart and entertaining. Not only did he provide factual data and historical perspective in his précis of these symphonies, he even cited a passage from a Carlos Santana song, ‘Love of My Life’, from his and Dave Matthews’ 1999 Supernatural album, which directly quotes a melody from the third movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony. For a moment, even I felt cool.

Douglas Dutton

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