Wednesday, February 15, 2012

concert review: Chicago Symphony

This is the third of the Great American Orchestras that SFS has invited in as part of its own centennial celebrations, and it gave the best concert yet. Music director Riccardo Muti took Franck's Symphony in D Minor, not normally one of the larger works in the repertoire - assuming you get to hear it in concert at all, which isn't often - and made an epic out of it. In the first movement, slow tempos, a husbanded layering of sound in crescendos, and a thorough exploration of each section of the movement as if it were a separate room by itself gave the massiveness of Bruckner. Franck's orchestration doesn't sound much like Bruckner's - he's much more addicted to doubling, for one thing - but they were both organists and they both treated the orchestra like an organ, a single entity that emits a multitude of sounds.

The music continued. The Allegretto was slow and gentle. The finale was slow and blindly wandering in sections, like the middle of the finale of Shostakovich's Fifth, jumping into fast vigor whenever the music goes into a forte theme statement. This was the only part where I couldn't quite grok what Muti was doing, but even there it was thoroughly satisfying. And the orchestra was, of course, marvelous. Fairly light but solid strings, clean brass, and the most awesomely liquid English horn (played by Scott Hostetler) imaginable.

Interesting stuff on the rest of the program, too. Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, one of the pioneering 1920s exercises in making music that's simply noisy. By today it's inoffensive and even a bit quaint. And a new work, which they premiered at home two weeks ago, Alternative Energy by Mason Bates. I know Bates' work - he's been heard at Cabrillo more than once - and I tended to dismiss him as a composer made largely of tics and an unreliable sense of when to use them. But he's matured now. Alternative Energy is a fairly large work - four movements, nearly half an hour - and here Bates has taken his style of landscape music built of oft-repeated, jumpy motifs irregularly overlaid with beaten percussion, and made it coherent and integrated, so that it works on a large scale while varying between movements, and not sounding like giant insects are stalking his landscape. Big success with the audience, and lo, it was good.

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