IN REVIEW: CSO returns to Helzberg Hall for stirring encore performance
The Chicago Symphony plays like a well-oiled, meticulously hand-crafted engine, and an opportunity to hear it in a fine acoustic space is always a treat. In 2015, when the Harriman-Jewell Series brought the CSO for its first appearance here in nearly a half-century, Music Director Riccardo Muti was so delighted with the experience of performing in the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall that he promised that very night, in front of the audience, that he and his musicians would return. Sure enough, on October 11th Riccardo and the band fulfilled that promise, with a Harriman-Jewell Series program that included what has, for inscrutable reasons, become a rarity for Kansas City—music by the 19th-century master Anton Bruckner.
The Austrian composer’s Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”) is in many ways ideal for the acoustics of Helzberg Hall, which have shown themselves to be near-perfect for a wide range of presentations (chamber music, solo-vocal, jazz, even Baroque opera), while proving somewhat claustrophobic, sonically speaking, for the expanded orchestras of Mahler’s or even Shostakovich’s symphonies. Though fully 19th-century in its outlook, Bruckner’s Fourth employs a relatively spare orchestra for its time, and it fits nicely into Helzberg’s relatively compact space. (The composer seems to have used the word Romantic to refer not so much to excessive 19th-century emotionalism as to a sense of “odes about Medieval heroism.”)
Riccardo is one of the world’s foremost living conductors of opera and especially Italian opera, so it was gratifying that the concert began with a tidbit of the repertoire for which he is justly celebrated. That it was the William Tell Overture made it all the more interesting: For what greater challenge than to make one of the most familiar works in the orchestral canon seem fresh and witty, while at the same time performing it “responsibly,” in a manner that (considering its popular-cultural connections) does not sound like a parody of itself?
The chamber-like cello introduction was perhaps not as warm as one might have expected, but the chiseled precision and refinement of the upper-string passages were breathtaking. In order to make this music sound great, it’s often best to “play it straight,” and this is just what the Chicagoans did. Fortissimos were well-gauged to the space, and soft passages were crafted gracefully. Though Riccardo seems at ease in his role as braver Schüler, beneath his cool, somewhat detached surface is a maelstrom of energy and knowledge: This fascinating ambivalence was more evident in the Rossini than in anything else on the program.
The concert’s first half was devoted primarily to a commissioned work, All These Lighted Things (three little dances for orchestra) by Minnesota-born Elizabeth Ogonek (b. 1989), who is currently the CSO’s Composer in Residence. This vibrant music is difficult to peg, though its striving for arching, “singable” tunes reminds one of some of the newer British composers. The dense orchestration was rich in contrast and dissonance, though it did not always demonstrate an ease or comfort in orchestral colors or balances. The lower-case titles of the three dance-like movements cued us in to what we were about to hear: “exuberant, playful, bright” highlighted a flowing theme in the winds that, after a storm of percussion and fury, gave way to a circuitous but shrewdly elaborate development of the opening theme.
“gently drifting, hazy” was dark and filled with a sense of foreboding: Using “bent” tones and melodic fragments the composer crafted a series of tenacious, almost mournful tunes—though this time, over a wash of mottled colors and textures. The second movement was separated from the third by a powerful coughing fit from an audience member, which drew mild laughter but also served as a reminder of the hall’s hypersensitive acoustics. The final “buoyant” gave spotlight to percussion and to big, striding melodies that, after building to near-deafening crescendos, dissolved into a metallic shimmer. (In addition to the usual “expanded complement,” the percussion section also included rainsticks, Burma bells, Chinese opera gongs, Japanese singing bowls, vibraslap and even egg shakers.)
In recent years the CSO has gone out of its way to signal that, although it remains proud of its famous “Chicago brass” legacy, the quality of playing is now evenly distributed among the other sections of the orchestra. This is to some extent true—the strings are of a very high caliber indeed, as are some of the wind principals—yet the fact remained that throughout the Bruckner it was the boisterously gleaming, richly textured brass section that stood out, and in a most decisive manner. (“Stood out,” both in quality and in sheer volume, thanks to the back wall of the Helzberg’s orchestra “shell,” which since Day One has tended to exaggerate the sound of whichever musicians happen to be sitting upstage, and especially those seated in the corners.) While at times it seemed that Riccardo was giving free rein to the brass, in contrast he paid a great deal of attention to the forming and crafting of the string sound, and in particular to continuity of softer passages—to quite positive effect.
Daniel Gingrich’s opening horn solo was a model of simplicity and noble grace, and throughout the piece the orchestra’s acting principal demonstrated a range of colors and textures, from milk-chocolaty tenderness to almost gritty muscularity. (Likewise one was drawn to Gene Pokorny’s astoundingly melodic tuba sound, and to the almost honeyed trombone sonorities.) In response, perhaps, to the composer’s casual unfolding of themes in the opening Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (although “bewegt” is sometimes translated as “with agitation”), Riccardo drove the movement forward gently, with alternating impulses of urgency and tranquility. The effect was almost one of self-deprecation from the podium.
The viola passages of the Andante, quasi allegretto were shaped pointedly to imbue them with a sort of deliciously doleful quality. (In general, the conductor showed more attention to this sort of “sculpting” in gentler passages than he did in big, marching fortissimos—which were sometimes allowed simply to “coast.”) In the galloping Scherzo, one of Bruckner’s most glorious “afterthoughts” (he had originally composed a less straightforward scherzo), speed was of the essence. One yearned for at least a quick “breath” between phrases in the call-and-response passages, which instead succeeded one another with no break or pause. (Helzberg is resonant enough that it requires a bit of time for a large block of sound to “clear” before the ear is ready to hear the next.) One was aware of travel fatigue, perhaps, in some of the more complex rhythmic interplay here. The giant finale was again a glorious demonstration of the orchestra’s sonorous capacities, with the brass again taking the lead—as the horn-call from the opening “snuck back in” to remind us of the work’s remote origins.
For information on upcoming Harriman-Jewell Series concerts go to hjseries.org or call 816-415-5025. Keep an eye on this column for an upcoming article on the Harriman’s November 7th presentation of Valery Gergiev and the Stradivarius Ensemble of the Mariinsky Orchestra.
All photos by Todd Rosenberg / Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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