The low brass instruments — the trombones and tuba — are the giant lungs of any orchestra. And the formidable lungs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have long been heralded for their exceptional power and beauty —  for the way they breathe something special into the remarkable sound of that altogether grand musical body.

So it is only fitting that these brass players also have a work created specially for them — one that moves them out of their usual position at the back of the orchestra and places them front and center, directly under the gaze of the conductor, with the golden shapes and rich voices of their instruments in the spotlight. And this is precisely what composer Jennifer Higdon (who picked up her second Grammy Award last week) has done with her sensational “Low Brass Concerto,” which received its world premiere Thursday night at Symphony Center, where Maestro Riccardo Muti led a program of four works of exceptional depth and richness.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Highly recommended
When: Repeats 1:30 p.m Feb 2; 8 p.m. Feb. 3
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $34 – $221
Info: www.cso.org
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

Composers from Beethoven to Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler all made use of the brass section, but for the most part drew on it to signal a momentous call to action or the beginning of a royal hunt. Higdon’s piece, which showcases the virtuosity of the CSO’s two tenor trombones (Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy), bass trombone (Charles Vernon), and tuba (Gene Pokorny), does something altogether different.

At the center of her wonderfully accessible, richly melodic new work — one propelled by exhilarating rhythms, vibrant orchestral color, and an ingenious use of strings, woodwinds and percussion — she gives the low brass “quartet” a chance to reveal the sort of full, warm, almost singing sound it doesn’t often get to display. Early on she draws on the subtlest hint of Renaissance-era brass music, but then, in the most seamless, organic way, she transitions into a sometimes counterpointed series of conversations just on the brink of jazz, with exhilarating riffs (including one between the bass trombone and tuba) matched with the urgent backing of the strings.

Composer Jennifer Higdon and the CSO Low Brass section acknowledge the audience’s warm reception following the world premiere performance of her “Low Brass Concerto” Thursday night at Symphony Center.
| © Todd Rosenberg 2018

The result is a work that is both modern and timeless, complex and sophisticated, and immensely engaging in a way that both charms and galvanizes an audience craving something new and full of urgency, yet not distancing. The concerto left its initial audience on its feet and cheering. And Muti surrounded this new piece with a fascinating mix of works by Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Chausson and Benjamin Britten that in their own very particular ways also mixed the classical with understated elements of modernism to intriguing effect.

The program opener was Stravinsky’s “Scherzo fantastique,” a rarely played piece from early in the composer’s career, when he wasn’t quite yet “the revolutionary.” You might hear echoes of both the playfully buzzing forest world in Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the impressionistic dreaminess of Debussy, plus the influence of Stravinsky’s mentor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the brilliant orchestrator. But listen carefully and you might also detect the briefest hint of the composer’s own soon-to-arrive ballet, “Petrushka.”

In Chausson’s exquisite “Poeme de l’amour et de la Mer” (“Poem of Love and the Sea”), it is the human voice that is of the essence, and it would be difficult to imagine a more ravishingly beautiful one than that belonging to Clementine Margaine, the French mezzo-soprano. Making a memorable debut with the CSO in this tale of feverish, perfume-infused, youthful passion that is destined to wither and die and leave heartbreak in its wake, Margaine’s velvety, unforced singing fully captured the lush, lyrical poetry and intimate emotion of the work in the most seamless yet entirely natural, unaffected way. And she forged an instantaneous connection with both the orchestra and her audience. Meanwhile, both the Chausson and new Higdon piece will be on the CSO’s Feb. 9 program at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Last but not least here was a terrifically haunted and haunting rendering of the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s tragic modern opera, “Peter Grimes,” the tale of a violent, alienated fisherman in an English seacoast village. These interludes serve as the connective tissue in the opera, with the changeable, alternately stormy and seductive sea suggesting the forces within Grimes himself.

Muti and the orchestra gave a thrilling performance of this ever mood-shifting work with its familiar theme, its church chimes, its use of pizzicato, its thunderous timpani and its suggestion of the sea as a force of both life and death.

Mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine debuts as soloist in Chausson’s “Poème de l’amour et de la mer,” led by Music Director Riccardo Muti Thursday night at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg 2018