A little brass, a little Brahms remind Carnegie Hall of CSO’s power

SHARE A little brass, a little Brahms remind Carnegie Hall of CSO’s power

Music director Riccardo Muti opens Saturday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program at Carnegie Hall. |
© Todd Rosenberg

NEW YORK — In a ritual that demands frequent repeating at America’s musical mecca, Carnegie Hall, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took to the stage Friday and Saturday to reaffirm their current eminence among the world’s greatest musical ensembles.

The Italian music director’s astonishing account of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, brilliant and uncluttered, concluded the visit to New York on the ensemble’s current East Coast tour. Muti and his musicians delivered the familiar masterwork with a rare sense of Viennese grace and detail that hearkened back to Schubert, and capped it with gleaming sonic splendor.

The crowd came to its feet in prolonged ovation, which Muti and the players acknowledged with an enchanting choice for an encore: the third entra’acte from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” music, an extraordinarily peaceful bit of spiritual balm that diminished to utter quiet. That exquisite delicacy is an important aspect of what makes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra so special.

Still, there is also that tradition of Chicago’s mighty brass, of which New York was also reminded: Four veterans of the clarion realm’s lower register sat front and center on Friday night, as they had done at the world premiere performance in Chicago a week prior, to introduce Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto, custom-made. Trombones Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy, bass trombone Charles Vernon and tuba Gene Pokorny had some fun with it, clearing the din of surrounding orchestral voices perhaps more easily than they did back home – not only a function of the orchestra’s continual adjustment to the new work, but also to the superior acoustics of the hall itself.

Chicago audiences are lucky to have their Orchestra Hall, which is better than many. But Carnegie Hall is among the two or three best in the world at allowing the musicians onstage to hear each other and to adjust on the fly, and that’s just the reality. Playing there is an absolute joy for musicians, and the standard they achieve there is often their highest high. Similarly, out in the hall, even though listeners can hear every little thing, the overall sonic mix is intrinsically warm, clear, congenial and flattering.

The Chicago Symphony and Muti have regularly taken their biggest and most ambitious projects to the Carnegie Hall stage. These have included Berlioz’s psychedelic melodrama “Lelio” with French actor Gérard Depardieu, Debussy’s poem to the sea “La mer,” and Verdi’s Requiem as well as operas “Otello” and “Macbeth” in concert — all offered to great acclaim.

But my bet is that New York audiences will not soon forget Saturday’s luxurious Brahms.

The Saturday program also included a reprise of young composer Sam Adams’ “many words of love,” the orchestral equivalent of a vast, slowly breathing forest of sound, alive with insect murmurs and sweeping natural rhythms. Adams’ writing involved a variety of fluttering, micro-tonal intervals, unusual attenuated sounds and whooshing noises, novel techniques for the stringed instruments’ bows and strange timbres. These effects were often rapid and fleeting, yet the pace of the whole was unhurried and its changes slow.

The title “many words of love” comes from a line in a well-known song by Schubert, “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree), which refers to a wanderer’s sudden memory, prodded upon passing by a tree on which he had once carved “so many words of love” — a gesture both violent and tender. As if in a dream, the Schubert song mixes euphoria and pain in fleeting, unmoored sensations. Adams picked up on that. He is one of the CSO’s two Mead composers in residence; as such he has had the opportunity to work with the musicians of the orchestra and to help shape its contemporary programming. His work will be performed one more time on the tour, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The East Coast tour programming also includes Verdi’s overture to “I vespri siciliani,” which opened the Saturday concert. Its rousing final section puts one in mind of Rossini’s overtures such as “William Tell.” Verdi’s overture is a barnstormer, a virtual symphony in one movement, deliciously repetitive, with soaring lyrical themes and an exhilarating run to the finish.

Works by Britten and Chausson, both presented in Chicago during recent weeks, will be mixed into the various concert configurations as the orchestra’s East Coast tour continues. Other sunny points south that remain to be visited include Naples and West Palm Beach, Florida.

Nancy Malitz is a Chicago freelance critic.

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