NEW YORK — The corridor walls just outside the auditorium of Carnegie Hall are lined with autographed scores from famous composers and conductors. It’s not hard to imagine a photo of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Riccardo Muti amid that treasured display. The CSO and its conductor are lionized here. Witness two packed houses for concerts Feb. 9-10 — and the remarkable fact that at the end of each concert, well, nobody left.
Both nights, after the final work — Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in the first instance and then Brahms’ Second Symphony — the audience stood and cheered and whooped until Muti came through with an encore. It’s probably fair to say the maestro’s encore choices returned the compliment of respect. No sonic blazers to send ’em home stoked: Muti opted for quietude, Martucci’s Notturno and an entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde, music that can melt listeners when it’s delivered from virtuoso hands.
The two Carnegie Hall concerts gave New Yorkers a veritable banquet of musical entrées: along with the Britten and Brahms, the sparkle of Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique and the lyric romanticism of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer with mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. And there were two substantive New York premieres, both of them CSO commissions. Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto brought four CSO veterans from their wonted seats at the back of the band to the front: trombones Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy, bass trombone Charles Vernon and tuba Gene Pokorny.
The other new work, Samuel Adams’ many words of love, showcased not only the young composer but also the CSO’s Mead composer-in-residency program (which Adams currently shares with Elizabeth Ogonek).
“I think there are many incredible things about the residency,” said Adams a few hours before his premiere. “First and foremost, I would say that the ability to be in a position to advocate for music of our time is an honor. I think that an organization, to be relevant in the 21st century, needs to not only support voices of our time, but also to create platforms for new forms of expression. And to be in a position [with the CSO-sponsored series MusicNOW] where I can help present that platform for artists, where I can provide a megaphone for artists, is an incredible privilege.
“And then of course there is the unique and wonderful experience of being able to actually connect with orchestral musicians on a level that is beyond what one may typically experience while working with an orchestra. Which is to say that I get to actually ask them questions and hear about what they think, and dialogue with them outside the rehearsal. I have had the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with some of them, so I get a kind of internal feedback, which you don’t usually get.”
Not all that glitters on a Chicago Symphony tour happens in concert halls. One of the great pleasures of tracking this orchestra — whether across China or to Paris and Vienna — is observing master classes led by its star players. In New York, I sat in on several classes in studios at Carnegie Hall.
Four young timpani players learned about refining their rhythm and then some in an afternoon session with CSO Principal David Herbert. The real meaning of virtuosity on the big drums, Herbert showed by example, is not just the breathtaking combination of speed and softness he regularly demonstrates in concerts back home at Symphony Center. The goal is to play musically; and one after another, the guys in his master class responded to Herbert’s exquisite example.
The common thread that ran through his instructions from player to player was the importance of a sustained note coming off as a single integrated sound, not like a series of separate strokes. And to help these timpanists more clearly hear the evenness of rapid strokes, Herbert recommended “shutting down” the drums — virtually eliminating their resonance, which he did by tossing winter jackets over the drum heads. With the timpani thus muted, the rhythmic lights came on.
It was a different sort of problem that CSO flute/piccolo Jennifer Gunn tackled with a young flutist who was trying to snare the bird in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. In effect, Gunn counseled her student to become the bird — to let herself go with the music, leave earth behind, soar and dive and exult. It’s quite something to watch the change in a young player who has the notes in her fingers, but is still too focused on her instrument until given, not really instruction, but rather permission to cut loose. In short order, this liberated birdie was doing cartwheels in the air.
What both of the CSO’s experienced coaches brought to their students was ready and ample praise, the lubricant for helpful criticism. And so did Li-Kuo Chang, CSO assistant principal violist, in a remarkable teaching mode of high intensity that somehow never came across as high pressure.
Working with a young woman, a very skilled player, on virtuosic excerpts from the Sancho Panza viola role in Strauss’ Don Quixote, Chang would stop the music after four bars, after two bars, even on the first draw of the bow, with “excellent” or “fantastic,” followed quickly by a course correction readily understood and achieved by the player. Chang was pushing for interpretive awareness — this bit is dance music, this phrase must spring from the first note. But he also was listening for steadiness in the musical line, and elegance in its inflection: the same qualities that Riccardo Muti constantly summons from Chang and his colleagues.
No surprise that Chang knew every note of the Don Quixote part from long experience. But he also could address, in no less detail, the solo music in Bartók’s rarely encountered Viola Concerto, which this student also had brought along. Again, it was start-stop, start-stop — always with high praise followed by precise, luminous correction. After that session, I told Chang how amazed I was that he knew the Bartók concerto as intimately as he knew Don Quixote, his daily bread. Turns out he played the Bartók in his audition for Georg Solti back in the day. Obviously, the CSO’s longtime music director, and Bartók’s Hungarian countryman, was sold.
Music and theater critic Lawrence B. Johnson is the editor of Chicago On the Aisle.
TOP: Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018