Chicago orchestra reaffirms its mastery, cohesion

02.17.12
Mason Bates
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

The parade of visiting orchestras coming through Davies Symphony Hall as part of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season has brought us some fine musical experiences, and will bring more before the spring is out. But if this week's extraordinary display by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doesn't emerge as the crowning glory of this project, I for one will be flabbergasted.

In concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday night - the Chicagoans' first local appearances in a quarter of a century - this magnificent orchestra did more than merely reaffirm its long-standing place at the forefront of American musical life. These performances also provided an encouraging snapshot of the burgeoning relationship between the ensemble and their music director in the year and a half since he took the reins.

The technical polish and sonic weight that this orchestra commands - the burnished sound of its string sections, the tireless and impeccable heroism of the brass - have long been the stuff of legend, even if local audiences have had to rely on recordings to hear them. And those qualities were everywhere in evidence through both programs.

But it was just as exciting to witness the fluid and responsive partnership between conductor and orchestra. The deftness with which the players both followed and supported Muti's interpretive lead, and the utter cohesiveness of the orchestra's playing in a wide range of repertoire, were marvels to behold.

The programs were (with one regrettable exception) strategically programmed to show off all these virtues. Tuesday's concert was the occasion for powerhouse display, with a lineup of meaty works from the past three centuries, and Wednesday's program - more intimately scaled but nearly as revelatory - offered a focus on Schubert.

By opening the proceedings with Honegger's "Pacific 231," Muti lost no time in letting audiences know what his group is capable of. The title of this short, visceral curtain-raiser, dating from 1924, refers to a steam locomotive, and it was an afterthought - but whether intentionally or not, the music's high-impact rhetoric plays as a celebration of the Industrial Age. The orchestra responded like a well-oiled machine, with weighty instrumental textures and elaborately synchronized rhythms.

Technology was also the subject of "Alternative Energy," a formidable and inventive new work by Oakland composer Mason Bates, who is one of the orchestra's two composers-in-residence. Its four movements offer a time-traveling montage, from 1896 through the year 2222, that is alternately whimsical, moving and eerie.

It's also Bates' most ambitious and epically scaled work to date, and it shows his mastery of the orchestral landscape like nothing before it. The opening pits a jaunty fiddle solo against jangly rhythms from a junk heap of metal and car parts (concertmaster Robert Chen and principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh were superb here), and the musical materials established there run through the rest of the work in different but recognizable guise.

Bates, who will be featured next month as part of the Symphony's Mavericks Festival, occasionally makes obvious choices in his harmonies. But a few feel-good cadences are a small price to pay for a narrative so compelling and so imaginatively crafted.

In more standard repertoire, Muti and the orchestra repeatedly showed their mastery of color and rhetoric. Franck's Symphony in D Minor, which concluded Tuesday's program, was a marvel of forceful and beautifully articulated ensemble textures.

Wednesday's Schubert, the Entr'acte from "Rosamunde" and the "Great" C-Major Symphony, featured some surprising tempo choices from Muti, who seemed to want to linger over some passages. But the overall direction and impact were undeniable.

The only fly in the ointment was "Night Ferry," a monotonous and astonishingly feckless tone poem by the orchestra's other composer-in-residence, Anna Clyne. The piece consists of a few repeated churning scales, with the entire orchestra playing almost throughout, and nearly always at full volume. An orchestra this great deserves better.