An orchestra is a living organism, its members much more than parts of a machine yet combining and interacting with each other to make something greater than their individual selves. No single player makes an ensemble and, try as some have, no one individual can break it.
Changes in personnel still have effects, though, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is preparing to say adieu to David McGill, principal bassoon since 1997 and a key figure in the Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti eras in both concerts and recordings. McGill, whose sound and technique long ago made him a legend among wind players, is taking a very early retirement from the orchestra to focus on teaching, writing and solo work. He joins the faculty at Northwestern University in September.
The solo voice of the bassoon is a signature in a number of pieces, most famously the opening of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” But normally it is an ensemble figure par excellence and very few concertos for solo bassoon exist and fewer have entered the repertoire. So it was that McGill plays his last concerto as a member of the CSO this week by returning to the greatest such work, Mozart’s early B-Flat Major composition, K. 19, written when the composer was 18. McGill played this just two seasons ago with a guest conductor, but so what? No one in the world plays it better and a chance to go out in collaboration in Mozart with Muti conducting is too good to pass up. McGill served on the search committee of trustees, management and musicians that eventually recommended Muti’s hiring in Chicago and the two are very much “music first” artists.
Playing his own cadenzas, in under 20 minutes Thursday night McGill offered pure beauty from the unusual sounding instrument while offering a catalogue of every sort of tongue flutter, breath control technique, articulation and pitch and volume leap and drop, all coming off as a wholly pleasurable unity. McGill has long said that the human voice is the absolute guide for the bassoon and the whole performance, not only the aria-like slow movement, was a sort of vocal communication, by turns playful, peaceful and poignant. The ovation from audience, Muti and other onstage colleagues was heartfelt. McGill leaves a superb section with a strong future. And he won’t be far away.
Muti — in the first of his season-closing two weeks of June concerts — framed the Mozart with two symphonies by Schubert that are rarely played in concert: his Sixth, or “Little C Major,” of 1817-18 and the First, in D, written four years earlier when Schubert was all of 16. Muti’s spring survey of all eight of the repertoire symphonies has not been chronological (“Why?” he proposed jocularly to the audience at an open rehearsal Thursday morning, “Because I am the conductor!”) and that has been fine. The point is in hearing them all in a series and in the orchestra having the experience of learning and playing them: The Sixth has not been heard here since 1995 and the First was played by the CSO downtown for the first time in 1982 and never since.
Both works are beautiful, elegant and yet with a Schubertian restlessness and willingness to let musical ideas work themselves out as we listen. Even his first symphony, as Dvorak — one of the early public admirers of his orchestral works which were not known for decades after his early death in 1828 — observed, could only be by Schubert. And in Muti’s hands, of course, they are all about a vocal quality and line, too. And with the principal wind players all assembled, along with William Buchman taking the first bassoon chair, the combination of Muti and the CSO could no wrong here.