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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Concert Review: Start the Massacre Without Me

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Riccardo Muti (standing) at the helm of his troops in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Photo by Todd Rosenberg © 2018 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The life of a classical music critic (especially one who runs his own business and also freelances!) is sometimes prone to the peccadilloes of routine. As a result, I'm starting this review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday night performance ant Carnegie Hall with a confession, that, thinking that the start time of the performance was the usual 8pm (as it almost always is for shows at Stern Auditorium I arrived at 7:40--ten minutes late.

Yes. I missed the overture.

The first work on that program was in fact the stirring overture from the Verdi opera I Vespri Siciliani. That opera, a five-act marathon written but he composer for the Parisian stage was an absolute bomba at its premiere. That might be because the libretto (by the French writer Eugene Scribe) ends with the ringing of vesper bells, the signal for the French occupiers to be massacred by the good citizens of Palermo. (This was an historical event--it happened in the year 1282 and started a long rebellion in which many Frenchmen (and Sicilians) lost their lives.) I have nothing to say about the performance, just that I was quickly shown to my seat by the courteous and professional Carnegie Hall ushers (thanks, guys!) as a late arrival as the audience applauded.

The second piece on the program was the real reason to be there: the New York concert premiere of many words of love. This 2017 work was commissioned by the CSO from the young composer Samuel Adams. Mr. Adams (who bears no relation to the other two prolific contemporary composers who share this common surname) based this multi-movement work on “Der Lindenbaum”, the fifth and among the most well known songs from Schubert’s epic song cycle Winterreise.

The work uses spectral techniques to produce its odd sound-world, violins that moan and gnash as if in torment, spooky percussion effects (bass drum, marimba, and something my ears could not quite identify) and slithering figures for the woodwinds. Mr. Adams created these sounds by digitally stretching and altering the pitches and lengths of the Schubert lied and writing down the notes hat resulted from his experimentation. The results, conducted with rigor by Mr, Muti were immersive, impressive and a little bit scary. Like its parent work, Mr. Adams created a tale of love and obsession that plunged some of the same icy depths as Schubert's song.

The second half of the concert featured a much sunnier work: Brahms' Symphony No. 2. Written during a spa holiday in the same year that produced the composers heaven-storming First Symphony, the Second is much more bucolic, and much more relaxed, unfolding itself at a leisurely pace. (As it is also true source of the famous “Brahms Lullaby” theme--it’s the second subject of the first movement--this is a Symphony that audiences tend to love, enjoying it even as it lulls them to slumberland.)

Although Mr. Muti took a slow and relaxed tempo, there was nothing dull or somnolent about this performance. Instead, the broad thematic ideas introduced in the first movement seemed strengthened by having their note values slightly and expertly stretched. (Shades of Mr. Adams and his spectral technique!) By contrast, the Adagio seemed sped up just a notch to match the relaxed pace of the opening, giving one a pastoral the impression of the quaint village where the composer took his ease.

The third movement is not quite a scherzo, but a movement that shifts  its tempo as the composer disguises and explores his main theme in various cunning iterations. By contrast, the finale was taken very fast indeed, with the Chicago players responding as one with alacrity and enthusiasm to their boss' leadership. As a farewell, Mr. Muti offered another uncharacteristic (for him) encore, the Intermezzo from the Schubert incidental music to the play Rosamunde. A colleague commented to me afterwards that Mr. Muti's conducting was like the legendary recordings of Anton Webern, marked by obsessive detail and "very Viennese" in its constant shifting of tempos. Not knowing the Webern recording, I could but agree that it was very beautiful indeed,

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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.