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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Concert Review: A History of Violence

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Riccardo Muti (on podium) leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and mezzo-soprano ClĂ©mentine Margaine
at Carnegie Hall on Friday night. Photo © 2018 Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 
Mention the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a room of classical music cognoscenti and you are likely to get the following reactions: a sigh of pleasure, a small smile, or a comment about the sonic size and vigor of their legendary brass section, who, in a city if big shoulders, cast the widest possible shadow. That orchestra and its leader Ricardo Muti are back in New York for their semi-annual visit to Carnegie Hall, and Friday night marked the first of two New York programs this weekend.

The concert began with Stravinsky. Not the bombast of The Firebird or the pagan pounding of The Rite of Spring, but the Scherzo Fantastique, an early orchestral work that shows the influence of Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The woodwinds led the way here, lilting through a delicate dance. The strings followed, tracing spidery lines, with three harps adding depth and color to the orchestral palette. It was a type of opening that the audience did not expect.

The tuba and trombones then entered, taking seats right at the front of the orchestra for the next piece: the Low Brass Concerto by Jennifer Higdon. One of a number of concertos written by Ms. Higdon for unusual soloists, this single movement cast in four parts displayed the ability of the three trombonists and tuba to do much more than just the usual heavy lifting in support of the horns. Ms. Higdon allowed each of the quartet to “speak” with the individual voice of their instrument, comment on each other's lines and then raise their voices in a chorale that would have made Anton Bruckner (or Sir Georg Solti) proud.

The second half featured a somewhat nautical theme. Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et la mer is a deep, headlong plunge into the waters of a composer who (had his life not ended early in an unlikely bicycle accident) might have fought the Wagnerian revolution upon the vasty fields of France. Chausson's music, which exists only as a handful of works, is woven from the same luxuriant thread as Tristan and Parsifal. (In other words, it represents everything that Debussy eventually rebelled against.)

Mezzo-soprano ClĂ©mentine Margaine was the discovery here. She has a plush and velvety voice that caressed the phrasing in “La fleur des eaux”, riding crests and breakers of orchestration toward some unknown but rocky shore. The central orchestral Interlude offered a brief shelter from this flood of chromaticism. Then  the mezzo rose again, this time pouring out “La mort de l’amour” a poem of love and death in purple prose that would have made the old master of Bayreuth blush. (Perhaps Debussy had a point.)

The concert concludes with much more modern and agreeable water music: the  Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The slow Dawn rose majestically, with Britten’s pointillist technique using winds and strings to suggest  the sleepy waking of the village where the opera is set. The sharp chords and chime bells of Sunday Morning reminded one of the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov, applying that pomp to the self-important villages with a caustic brush. Moonlight was all delicacy and tension. It was in the final Storm that all hell broke loose. Here at last was that burly, burnished Chicago sound, as the tempest raged and thundered. A

However that was not the end. Mr. Muti (who is noted for among  other things a distaste for offering encores) resumed the podium. He offered a short anecdote of Arturo Toscanini and that fiery conductor’s departure from Italy in 1931. At a memorial concert for the composer Giuseppe Martucci, Toscanini had refused to conduct the Fascist anthem "Giovanezza." He was beaten up by Fascist thugs, packed his bags and left Italy.  Mr. Muti then offered the plush and searching performance of Martucci's Notturno.  It was a bit of balm to the ears, expertly delivered and making a sharp and necessary political point. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.