Higdon concerto, Italian encore provide fitful warmth in a night of cool brilliance from Chicago Symphony

Sat Feb 10, 2018 at 2:23 pm
Clementine Margaine performed Chausson's "Poème de l’amour et de la mer" with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Clémentine Margaine performed Chausson’s “Poème de l’amour et de la mer” with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It sometimes happens in a recital that the hardworking performer fails to make much emotional connection with the audience until the encores. Then he or she relaxes, and the fun begins. 

Orchestras don’t often play encores, or we might see more evenings like Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, when the temperature in the room seemed noticeably cool as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti expertly dispatched a program of brilliant and/or powerful music by Stravinsky, Higdon, Chausson and Britten, only to warm up for a delicate, yearning encore, Giuseppe Martucci’s Notturno, Op. 70, no. 1.

Muti prepared the way for the encore with a long spoken introduction, touching hand to heart as he pronounced the piece a personal favorite and recounted (among many other things) the role of Martucci’s music in Arturo Toscanini’s decision to resist the Mussolini regime. 

Thus the maestro of forbidding mien proved to be an old softie after all, drawing appreciative chuckles with a sly remark about resisting fascism in all eras, including the present. After that, Martucci’s long Mahleresque string lines went straight to the heart.

Prior to that, the warmest sentiments of the evening went to four players from the back of the band who brought their shiny instruments front and center for Jennifer Higdon’s brand-new Low Brass Concerto, premiered just last week in Chicago.

It’s fun to root for the guys from the ranks when they’re showing what they can do. Combine that with Higdon’s reputation for colorful, inviting music, and you have an audience primed for pleasure. The new piece and the four soloists—trombonists Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy, bass trombonist Charles Vernon, and tuba player Gene Pokorny—delivered nicely on that promise Thursday. 

Their achievement was the more impressive for being accomplished without special effects or avant-garde playing techniques. Higdon was even extremely sparing in the use of the swooping glissandos that are the first thing one thinks of when one looks at a trombone. 

Instead, the focus was on melody and rich tone in the slow passages, and lickety-split articulation elsewhere. Like other Higdon works, the concerto spoke a recognizably American symphonic language with roots in Schuman, Harris, and Piston, tonal with bracing dissonances, the strings often moving together in massive chords.

The one-movement piece moved briskly from noble deep-brass utterances to a hot syncopated fugato and a sort of hoedown launched by Pokorny’s rockin’ staccato tuba.

In fact, in squeezing so much diverse music into one fairly compact movement, Higdon gave the impression of being a contemporary composer on a bill of the classics, concerned about overstaying her welcome. Except for the solo quartet’s splendid opening chorale, the concerto lacked substantial periods of repose and reflection, which these lordly instruments would surely be good at, and which might have lifted this work to another expressive level.

In any case, the audience gave a well-earned warm reception to the new piece and its skillful soloists. Acknowledging the applause from the stage, composer Higdon appeared, in Stravinsky’s famous phrase, “satisfied with great success.”

For a sense of repose and taking one’s time, a listener had only to return after intermission for Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, which consisted of two lush, leisurely songs about love and loss, connected by an orchestral interlude.

Chausson’s nuanced, lapidary idiom grew out of the major musical influences of his time, the end of the 19th century, and Muti’s rendering of the Poème seemed to favor a substantial Wagnerian sound over something lighter and more suggestive à la Debussy.

The round, room-filling mezzo-soprano of Clémentine Margaine was a good match for this interpretation, lustrous on top and well-supported in the low register, to which the music descended often as night and sadness closed around the speaker in the poem. Her paring away of vibrato to a flat, lifeless tone in the piece’s last despairing moments was deeply affecting.

It’s hard to say why a performance of such sensitivity didn’t bring a stronger audience response than it did. Perhaps it was the downer ending of the piece itself, or Muti’s somewhat weighty interpretation. Maybe listeners loved it, but quietly. In any case, the audience managed just enough applause for Margaine to make two quick returns for bows, and the temperature in the room inched up only slightly.

Sometimes the opening work on a program sets the tone for the whole evening, and perhaps it didn’t help this concert to begin with Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, a very early exercise in Mendelssohnian lighter-than-air textures combined with a Russian taste for the bizarre, scarcely resembling the Stravinsky, or rather Stravinskys, of later years. 

In the capable hands of the Chicago players, every element of this fanciful piece—the bee-buzzing chromatics of the strings, the sharp woodwind exclamations, the sizzling Sorcerer’s Apprentice licks amid whole-tone harmonies—was neatly in place, and the whole came off as something of a glittering gadget. Perhaps some conductor might find a more humane streak of wit in this music to warm up the audience, but one wonders.

Similarly, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes seemed to emphasize the cool indifference of nature and society to the plight of individuals. Although Phillip Huscher’s program notes eloquently described the title character’s torments, human psychology seemed remote from these between-the-acts vignettes of dawn, moonlight, and a storm at sea, and of a village street all abustle, then deserted, on a Sunday morning. 

One was left admiring again the orchestra’s polished execution and its superb control in the storm’s fiercest moments, which brought the evening to an exciting close. And one understood why Muti wanted to leave the audience with a warmer feeling than Britten’s music evoked.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs works of Verdi, Samuel Adams, and Brahms 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.

2 Responses to “Higdon concerto, Italian encore provide fitful warmth in a night of cool brilliance from Chicago Symphony”

  1. Posted Feb 11, 2018 at 7:26 pm by tps

    Incredible mix of works, interesting and showed off the CSO for the great ensemble it is. Muti and the strings were lush in the Martucci encore. Agree you could hear Wagner in the Chausson songs.

  2. Posted Feb 13, 2018 at 3:32 pm by Darrell

    I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of this concert, augmented by the Martucci encore. It was refreshing to hear the Stravinsky, after having not hearing it “live” since hearing Rozhdestvensky conduct it with the NYP decades ago.

    Although I enjoyed Higdon’s concerto, at some points the solo quartet seemed too well integrated with the orchestra. Perhaps it was because the location of our Dress Circle seats, where the only bell facing us was that of the tuba. Ms. Margaine has a wonderful voice, performing a piece with which I was unfamiliar.

    The Britten is always enjoyable, whether to perform or to listen. I could understand it being considered for a 20 minute ballet. Although Muti’s performance of the Martucci was unexpected and wonderful, perhaps my seats were again the culprits in having to strain to hear his personable comments.

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