Last Friday, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony made their long-awaited visit to the Southland with a one-night stop at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The whole affair had a “take it or leave it” feel, beginning with the curiously obscure program of works by Honegger, Mason Bates, and Franck, and ending with Mr. Muti giving a compact “bye-bye” wave from the podium before the orchestra walked off the stage mid-applause without playing an encore. There were smiles on many of the musicians faces, including the maestro, but they seemed to reflect merely polite contentment, without much indication that anyone on stage was having much fun. It all seemed to coincide with Mr. Muti’s declarations that orchestral performances are art, NOT entertainment — as if they cannot be both.
Thankfully, the music-making itself was uniformly excellent. If the three pieces being performed weren’t familiar, they were accessible. More importantly, they provided the CSO an opportunity to flex their muscles, and the orchestra responded by playing with the power and panache for which they are famous. You’d probably expect this from the brass, but it was present throughout the ensemble, most especially in the unanimity of the strings from top to bottom. This was orchestra as monolith, and even if that meant individual sections or players lacked their own personality, one still couldn’t help but be impressed with the sound.
The first half of the evening consisted of two programmatic works about man and machine. The first, Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, was the revelation of the night. I had never heard anything by this composer before, but if this is an indication of what his entire ouevre is like, I’m going to have to search out more if it. Representing a locomotive starting up, running, and then slowing down, Pacific 231 had everything you’d expect in such a piece: momentum, rhythmic weight, and harmonic complexity. The second work was Alternative Energy, a new work by composer and DJ, Mason Bates. One of the two CSO Composers-in-Residence, Mr. Bates created a work inspired by the concept of energy creation through the ages, starting with Ford’s Farm in 1896, to Chicago in 2012, an onwards to China, then Iceland, in 100 year increments. Musical effects ranged from a country fiddle tune and car engine hand-crank, to recorded sounds from Fermilab in Illinois and other electronica generated from Mr. Bates’s computer. The orchestral writing was full of interesting moments, and while Mr. Bates could sometimes resort to musical caricature to make his points, the overall effect was positive. It made me think of Magnetar, Enrico Chapela’s much less compelling attempt at a similar melding of electronic and traditional sounds with the LA Phil a few months ago. Unlike that work, Alternative Energy was raucously satisfying — tonal and accessible, without ever needing to pander. Concertmaster Robert Chen played the fiddle tune with spirit, while Principal Percussionist Cynthia Yeh (formerly with the San Diego Symphony) gamely ran back and forth banging on a plethora of instruments in between turns of the hand crank.
César Franck’s only symphony used to be much more prevalent on orchestra programs, but it has become an increasing rarity over the past couple of decades. Among its current fans are critic and blogger, Tim Mangan, Philharmonic Society President, Dean Corey, and writer and radio personality, Jim Svejda, who memorably described it this way:
It has something for everyone: despair, adventure, exuberance, romance, and an English horn solo in the second movement for which anyone who ever played the instrument, myself included, would cheerfully sell his grandmother to the gypsies. (Jim Svejda, The Insider’s Guide to Classical Recordings, Sixth Edition)
I, on the other hand, am not so big a fan. I don’t dislike it, mind you; I even happen to have three different recordings of the work. It’s just that I find the Symphony in d minor to be the musical equivalent of lobster thermador: very popular in the Mad Men era; rich, buttery, and pleasant enough when you happen upon it; but hopelessly out of date, a little too cheesy, and not something you need to experience in person more than once a generation or so.
After intermission, Mr. Muti and the CSO gave Franck’s work a robust and sumptuous reading. He took his time throughout, luxuriating over many moments. Scott Hostetler played a fluidly phrased English horn solo. I can’t imagine the work being played any better. If there were any performance of the symphony that would have made me a believer, it should have been this one. Yet in the end, I remained unconvinced.
Random other thoughts:
- Before the concert began, Mr. Corey came out to say a few words of welcome to both audience and orchestra. As he was finishing, his daughter walked on stage, announced to everyone that it was Mr. Corey’s 65th birthday. She began to lead the audience in an a cappella rendition of “Happy Birthday” when after a few bars, the CSO joined in, quickly finding the right key and managing some harmony to boot.
- Let’s hope the Chicago Symphony doesn’t wait as long before returning to the West Coast. Someone offered me a bet on whether that would happen before or after I heard the Franck Symphony performed again; even if I were a betting man — and I am — I wouldn’t take that bet.
- A few words about Principal Horn Dale Clevenger: the veteran musician has a legendary reputation, but as I’ve stated before, Principal Horn can be a lightning rod for criticism in any orchestra, and Mr. Clevenger has been taking a lot of hits in the Chicago media for his playing as of late. As recently as a few weeks ago when this same Honneger/Bates/Franck program was premiered in Chicago, John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, made a point of singling out Mr. Clevenger for “several splattered entrances.” During the first half of Friday’s concert, I had forgotten all of that; however, during the Franck, there wasn’t a single exposed horn line that didn’t cause me to squirm due to a rough entrance, or more disturbing, some very questionable intonation. The all-around excellence and precision of the rest of the orchestra just made those moments that much more notable. Hate to point it out, but there you go.
- There seemed to be an inordinate amount of women in fur coats near where I was sitting, certainly more than I’d ever seen at Walt Disney Concert Hall or any other orchestral concert in any city — and many of those concerts were in places away from Southern California when the ambient temperature was less than 50 degrees. And for those who may be concerned, I didn’t ask whether the fur was genuine or imitation.
- Other reviews from the night:
- Muti on conducting new music and conducting in general; reviews from CSO’s concerts in SF
- Chicago Symphony coming to California; download free MP3 of Franck symphony to celebrate
Philharmonic Society of Orange County: February 17, 2012; Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor
HONEGGER: Pacific 231, Mouvement symphonique No. 1
BATES: Alternative Energy
FRANCK: Symphony in d minor
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of the Chicago Symphony