The great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti has been music director of the legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010. During a long and distinguished career he has conducted, and in some cases led, most of the world’s great orchestras and opera companies.
Under Muti’s leadership, the CSO has, if anything, enhanced its reputation as one of the world’s finest orchestras. In early February 2018, Muti and his Chicagoans were on tour in Washington and New York, presenting two different programs.
On Friday evening, February 9, they were in New York’s Carnegie Hall with a program that differed from the orchestral spectaculars usually heard when touring ensembles appear in this venue.
First on the program was Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3. Premiered in 1909, it was a student work that led to Stravinsky’s collaboration with ballet choreographer Sergei Diaghilev. It is a charming if slight work that the orchestra played with appropriately shifting colors and especially fine work by the woodwinds.
Of special interest was Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto, which received its New York premiere after having received its world premiere in Chicago earlier in the week. Higdon is a Philadelphia-based composer long associated with the Curtis Institute of Music. Her compositions have earned her the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Awards. Her Blue Cathedral, composed in 2000, has been performed by orchestras around the world.
The Low Brass Concerto was composed for the three trombones and tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, long famed for the brilliance and excellence of its brass section. The work is typical of her style, which features dense writing for the strings and incisive melodic use of the woodwinds.
Higdon’s use of alternating fast and slow sections, with contrasting thematic elements among the four soloists and by the four soloists with the orchestra was perfectly suited to the colors of the instruments. It was beautifully played by trombonists Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon, and tubaist Gene Pokorny.
Ernest Chausson left few compositions when he suffered an untimely death. One of the finest is Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Op. 10 (1893), a sensitive setting of otherwise undistinguished poems by Maurice Bouchor for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
The mezzo at Carnegie Hall was Clémentine Margaine, whose career thus far has been primarily in opera at houses throughout Europe. She has a lush, warm voice well-suited to Chausson’s delicate and mournful melodies. Muti, of course, is one of the great opera conductors of his generation, and the support provided by the Orchestra to Margaine’s interpretation of the text could not have been better.
The last work on the written program was the Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The playing of the orchestra was simply dazzling, the virtuosity of the players of the highest order. It is the finest performance of this piece (which I have heard many times both in the opera house and the concert stage) that I have ever heard.
The audience would not let Muti leave the stage without an encore, and he obliged with the Notturno by Muti’s fellow Neapolitan Giuseppe Martucci. It is a piece well-loved by Italians and provided a fitting finale to a memorable evening of stellar music-making.