CSO program unlocks all the colors of the orchestra

SHARE CSO program unlocks all the colors of the orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final program of the season offers something old (Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5) and something new (the world premiere of Mason Bates’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology”). The juxtaposition of these two works turns out to be ideal — far more than just a pairing of a beloved chestnut and an untested debut.

Heard back-to-back, the pieces suggest the dramatically different ways in which composers can deploy all the colors of an orchestra. And under Maestro Riccardo Muti’s meticulous but heated direction, not only do the very particular qualities of each instrument become crystal clear, but the lush, golden ensemble sound of the orchestra is never lost. A beautiful balancing act.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Highly recommended

When: Sat. Jul 20 at 8 p.m.

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $33 – $255

Info: (312) 294-3000;


Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Bates’ 40-minute work — his second and final CSO commission for the full orchestra as a Mead Composer-in-Residence — is a fascinating aural feast. The composer took his inspiration from “The Book of Imaginary Beings,” a bestiary of mythical creatures penned by Jorge Luis Borges, the 20th century Argentinean fabulist often dubbed the first “magical realist.” Set in a fantastical forest in the hours between twilight and Madrugada (a Portuguese term for the period between midnight and the sunrise), it imaginatively evokes the qualities of a Sprite, a Malayan creature known as the A Bao A Qu, Nymphs, a Gryphon, Sirens and a Zaratan (in folklore, a giant sea turtle).

Shakespeare often sent his addled mortals into a forest to sort themselves out. Bates sends his audience into his own enchanted forest — one full of alternately strange, fearsome and playful sounds and wildly varied rhythms — where the creatures are more fanciful than real, but where their “voices” exert an hypnotic effect. Although Bates is known for interweaving electronic sounds into his scores, “Anthology” is purely acoustic, and serves as a reminder (perhaps to the composer himself), that the potential of many instruments remains far from fully exploited. And ironically enough, there are many moments when the piece calls to mind the sort of highly amplified recordings of insects and birds in the wild now possible thanks to sophisticated equipment.

“Anthology” begins with a sense of slight agitation in the strings, with the sounds of a wide array of percussion (xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, wood switches, crotales, castanets, ratchet, wind machine, Chinese drum, tambourine) keeping Cynthia Yeh, Vadim Karpinos, James Ross, as well as timpanist David Herbert exceptionally busy. Pianist Mary Sauer doubles on celesta. The clarinetists perform beautiful arabesques of sound. The strings conjure an ever-expanding hum. There are otherworldly awakenings, brief fairylike twinklings, the claps of woodblocks that suggest a Jabberwock-like creature, and much other sonic magic.

Cynthia Yeh, principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, plays a wind machine as part of Mason Bates’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Cynthia Yeh, principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, plays a wind machine as part of Mason Bates’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

While there is nothing programmatic about Bates’ piece (it’s not at all like Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Saint Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”), “Anthology” does have the occasional echo of Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Firebird.” Fresh, appealing and dramatic in its quirky way, it makes you listen. And the boyish-looking composer, warmly embraced by Muti, was treated to multiple curtain calls.

Following intermission on Thursday night, the ever charming Muti joined in the city’s Blackhawks fever and led the CSO in what was surely the most extravagant rendering of the team’s Chelsea Dagger goal song it will ever receive. Then it was on to the Fifth Symphony, the final installment in Muti’s cycle of the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies.

From the familiar opening notes of the work — determined and subtly mournful, and progressing into a sort of formal, imperial dance (with echoes from both Tchaikovsky’s earlier “Swan Lake” ballet and the still-to-be-written “Sleeping Beauty”) — the first movement was a model of fluidity, with rich surges from the clarinets and French horn section (notably by Andrew Bain, a principal guest player this week, on loan from the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

The darker strings and French horns brought a beautiful singing quality and dramatic tension to the second movement. The familiar waltz of the third movement was a fine showcase for the clarinets and oboes, with the horns and strings joining to create a sense of euphoria. And then Muti brought the whole thing to a vivid close, with a processional-like theme building to a sense of fury and a grand triumphal march.

Before launching into Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Muti spoke to the audience, noting that this is the final program of the season for an orchestra that he considers “a great privilege to conduct, and a great privilege for its audiences to hear.” No one would disagree.

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