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Symphony Center comes alive with return of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, audiences for live concert

The CSO presented its first live, in-person concert Thursday evening in Orchestra Hall following nearly 15 months of pandemic shutdown.

On Thursday night, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — spread across the stage to maintain social distancing measures — under the direction of trombonist Michael Mulcahy, perform the first live concert in more than a year with an audience in attendance at Orchestra Hall.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned to performing before a live audience with the program “Fanfare” featuring musicians from the CSO brass and percussion sections (seated across the stage to adhere to social distancing protocols) conducted by Michael Mulcahy on Thursday night.
Anne Ryan

It didn’t matter that the concert only lasted a little more than an hour or that the seating capacity, normally 2,522, was reduced to 398.

It didn’t matter that the musicians had to be spread across the stage in an unusual semi-circle to accommodate safe distancing.

And it didn’t matter that the event had a slightly ad hoc feel, considering that this kick-off to three sets of programs was only announced on May 4 and had none of the usual amenities like a pre-concert talk or intermission.

What did count is that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented its first live, in-person concert Thursday evening in Orchestra Hall after nearly 15 months of at first, inaction, and later, virtual, small-ensemble presentations.

The message was clear: One of the city’s and the world’s cultural treasures survived a pandemic that has severely strained arts organizations across the country and no doubt felled some.

My feelings Thursday evening were many and somewhat contradictory — both disorientation and relief. But most of all, joy.

Live music has been at the center of my entire career as a critic and I have never taken it for granted, but its absence for so long has made me painfully realize how much it means to me and my well-being. And I’m sure I’m not alone in these feelings.

As suggested already, Coronavirus protocols made it impossible for the Chicago Symphony to stage a normal concert. Just 24 total orchestra members and guest musicians took part (the configuration varied by piece), but that was enough.

Symphony trombonist Michael Mulcahy, who has considerable experience on the podium, led the all-American brass and percussion program. It comprised five familiar and not-so-familiar works, beginning with Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a fitting tribute to the many often unheralded heroes during this time of medical devastation.

Only 328 patrons (out of a normally 2,522 capacity seating) were allowed to attend Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall due to pandemic restrictions.
Only 328 patrons (out of a normally 2,522 capacity seating) were allowed to attend Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall due to pandemic restrictions.
Anne Ryan

A highlight was “Street Song” for Symphonic Brass by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is best known as the music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1995 through 2020. This 1996 symphonic arrangement of his 1988 brass quintet of the same title makes it clear he knows his way around this family of instruments. The satisfying 18-minute work was a kind of fantasy, with showy frills, off-balance swells, clipped bursts, dissonant tinges, full-bodied chords and jazzy riffs — all smartly realized by these eager musicians.

Rounding out the line-up was Gunther Schuller’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op. 16 (1950); Samuel Barber’s “Mutations from Bach” (1968), and a rhythmic romp excerpted from Leonard Bernstein’s score for the movie, “On the Waterfront” (1954).

The evening ended with a surprise encore — Timothy Higgins’ spirited arrangement of “Happy Birthday” which Mulcahy said was dedicated to a “certain unnamed person” with a birthday this summer. That, of course, would be music director Riccardo Muti who turns 80 on July 28. Maestro Muti returns to the podium at Symphony Center this fall.

Yes, it was possible to quibble with some aspects of the performance, such as a few tempos that could have used a bit more dynamism. But Thursday evening was not the moment for nitpicking.

It was a time to celebrate. Live music and the Chicago Symphony are back!