Fisch takes over Muti program, Wagnerian warts and all

Asher Fisch
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Asher Fisch is a musician who honors his colleagues' commitments. Good for him.

Having been enlisted only last weekend to take over a round of Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts that were to have been conducted by music director Riccardo Muti before he took ill, Fisch stuck with the idiosyncratic program Muti had planned. He did so even though one of the works, Wagner's "Centennial March," he had never even seen or heard before.

Fisch got his start as an assistant to Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, but Chicagoans know him primarily for his work at Lyric Opera. He will return to Lyric next month to conduct Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera."   

Meanwhile, Thursday's concert at Orchestra Hall marked the downtown CSO debut of the New York-based Israeli conductor, who conducted the orchestra for the first time — and very well, too — in 1998 at Ravinia.

Muti's plan was to connect two milestones in the history of the Americas — the 1876 centennial of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the 2010 celebration of the bicentennial of Mexican independence and centennial of the Mexican revolution. He chose the Wagner march to represent the former, Mexican composer Carlos Chavez's "Sinfonia India" to represent the latter. Beethoven's Third Symphony ("Eroica") completed the program.

Before founding what became the Chicago Symphony, conductor Theodore Thomas commissioned Wagner to contribute a work suitable for performance at the 1876 International Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Thomas offered the famed composer a fee of $5,000, a princely sum even then, which Fisch estimates would be worth nearly $100,000 today. Wagner, who was in the middle of writing Act 2 of "Parsifal" at the time, later said the fee was the best part about the work.

He was right: The "Centennial March" is empty, bombastic junk, perhaps the worst piece of occasional music ever written by a major composer at the height of his powers. Wagner's heart clearly wasn't in the project and he probably took sly delight in having pulled off so lucrative a con. I'm not sure why Muti picked this inflated drivel over any number of worthy American celebratory works. That said, the CSO brass players in particular threw themselves into it with great, stentorian gusto.

No apologies were needed for the Chavez symphony, a compact masterpiece from 1936 inspired by pre-Columbian Indian culture. Fisch was firmly on top of its metric and rhythmic irregularities and made much of the colorful percussive element that is key to the score's primitivist impact. The winds, brass and percussion players kicked up the excitement level to heady heights.

Much of Fisch's Beethoven "Eroica" bristled with a different sort of driving energy, a momentum resting on firmly weighted chords, a deep sense of structural integrity and a refusal to linger over expressive points Beethoven makes perfectly well on his own. There were a few imprecise attacks, but most of the playing was of a very high order, particularly Eugene Izotov's eloquent oboe solo in the Funeral March.

CSO conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez will take over next week's subscription concerts, bringing Mahler's enigmatic and sprawling Symphony No. 7. The program will be taped for a PBS "Great Performances" national broadcast on Oct. 27 that was originally planned to celebrate Muti's maiden voyage as CSO music director.