By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, February 12, 2018
One of the Second City’s greatest cultural institutions, the revered Chicago Symphony Orchestra, visited Carnegie Hall in a varied program under the baton of Ricardo Muti. Of particular interest was the New York premiere a newly commissioned concerto by highly sought after composer Jennifer Higdon for the CSO’s powerful low brass section. But perhaps the finest moments of the evening were delicate ones.
They began the evening with the youthful Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, a precocious work composed under the tutelage of his teacher, the master orchestrator Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (composer of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the feeling of which is echoed a bit here). Few composers evolved more stylistically over the course of their careers than Stravinsky, but this piece, which arguably launched his legendary career, demonstrates both a mastery of nineteenth century traditions and a keen embrace of then-new French innovations.
The piece is a perfect showpiece for the CSO’s finest qualities. Muti’s disciplined ensemble plays with a clarity of texture and meticulous intonation unmatched by most orchestras. Stravinsky’s intricate, multicolored orchestration comes through clearly. Delicate playing from the fine woodwinds ushers in the slower middle section, and with it, a moment to relish the warm, plush timbre of the string section. Throughout, Muti requires rhythmic precision of his players, every detail in just the right proportion, allowing Stravinsky’s ballet-ready work to truly levitate.
What should have been the highlight of the evening, but didn’t quite land for me, was the new work by recent Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon. Highly prolific, Hidgon writes in a compositional voice invites the listener in. Her harmonic palette has a timeless quality that modern audiences find relatable, yet ambitious enough to be stimulating.
In this Low Brass Concerto, a single movement work written expressly for the CSO’s low brass players — three trombones (Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy and Charles Vernon) and a tuba (Gene Pokorny) — Higdon took on a unique challenge, and clearly tried to not take the obvious road. The resulting performance, however, struggled to soar. It seemed effortful and strained, although of course, this is a piece which would undoubtedly be better appreciated after multiple hearings.
Treating the four soloists essentially as a quartet, the piece begins slowly, with the four of them rising from a primordial goo, picking up orchestral support gradually, as the harmonies seem to expand and contract. The piece then picks up pace, the writing shifting to busy chattering figures darting about between the soloists, and then, in fitful dialogue with the orchestra in a driving, minor-keyed action sequence (it’s a shame Higdon doesn’t write film scores). The mood ebbs and we again find the quartet alone, in a sustained passage that emphasizes the wide range of highs and lows available to these instruments. Higdon builds skillfully from there, as the music becomes busier and more agitated. But it didn’t seem to lead anywhere; the ending was puzzlingly cursory, given the forces available. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, though, and a beaming Higdon came to the stage to take a gracious, and grateful, bow.
The highlight of the evening was an exquisite account of Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Two orchestral songs, connected by an instrumental interlude, a rarely heard masterpiece of late French romanticism. This is a setting of two poems about lost love by Maurice Bouchor, “The Flower of the Waters” and “The Death of Love,” sung here flawlessly by mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. Playing with exceeding polish, each phrase well edited and honed, Muti and the CSO allowed the pillowy textures and subtle melancholy in Chausson’s rhapsodic orchestral writing to gently accompany and lift up Margaine’s smoky, haunting vocalism and exceptional diction, the balance between soloist and orchestra always right.
The concert concluded with a clinical reading of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. It’s interesting to hear these majestic pieces performed with such refinement of detail (the long, floating tune in the violins in the opening, “Dawn,” never so carefully pure in tone and articulation). But this evening, this fastidiousness seemed to emphasize Britten’s chilliness. There should be more drama and emotion in this music.
In an unusual move, Muti appended the concert with an encore, a gorgeous Nocturne by Guiseppe Martucci, an under-appreciated Italian composer he was championed in the past. Muti introduced it to the audience in a short speech referencing resistance to dictatorial regimes, and the audience seemed in full accordance that great art such as they had just experienced, was a necessary salve in troubling times.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on February 9, 2018. Riccardo Muti, Music Director and Conductor; Clémentine Margaine, mezzo-soprano; Jay Friedman, trombone; Michael Mulcahy, trombone; Charles Vernon, bass trombone; Gene Pokorny, tuba.
STRAVINSKY Scherzo fantastique
JENNIFER HIGDON Low Brass Concerto (NY Premiere)
CHAUSSON Poème de l’ amour et de la mer
BRITTEN Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
MARTUCCI Notturno, Op. 70, No. 1
Cover: Mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine and Ricardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Todd Rosenburg Photography.