Review: Muti and Chicago Symphony make a very impressive visit to Davies Hall

02.15.12
Mason Bates
San Jose Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

 

Two contrasting images leap to mind in recalling the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's audacious concert Tuesday at Davies Symphony Hall. One is a picture of conductor Riccardo Muti, facing his players during the Allegretto of César Franck's Symphony in D minor, seeming to release pressure from a valve as a sustained cloud of muted strings floats through the hall. The other picture is of Muti, too, his left arm ticking like a metronome as a hard-core techno beat breaks out in the midst of composer Mason Bates's "Alternative Energy."

In the first instance, Muti and his orchestra -- making its first San Francisco appearance since 1987 -- seem to be unveiling a monumental oil painting, very 19th century, rich in color and mood. In the second, Muti might be dialing in the most vivid HD imagery -- another landscape, but futuristic, boiling with percussion (including Bates's own laptop triggering of sampled sounds) and etched by sharpshooter brass. One wonders what Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti -- CSO music directors of past eras -- might have thought about this fellow Bates, and about this program.

Probably they would have recognized that Muti, in his second season as music director, is showing off this great orchestra's extreme versatility, extending its tradition. Tuesday's performances of Franck and Bates -- and of Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231," which opened the program -- shared essential qualities: warmth and taut athleticism, both, with X-ray clarity of detail amid fine balance and blend. Lustrous strings. Plummy winds. And one could see the players' eyes, following Muti as he paused here and there during Franck's familiar opus, just for a millisecond, considering how he might let this warhorse shake out and breathe.

Chicago is the third of six American orchestras visiting Davies Symphony Hall in 2011-12, their way of honoring the San Francisco Symphony in its centennial season. So far, we've seen the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony -- and Chicago, whose Tuesday performance was perhaps the most impressive of the bunch, given its unique combination of grandeur and ease. Even with some occasional overplaying by the brass (and a flubbed note or two from the horns) this was an exemplary performance. A second Chicago program, featuring Schubert and a new work from Anna Clyne, will take place Wednesday. And as the season progresses, the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra will visit the hall.

Muti -- man of La Scala (1986-2005), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-1992) and other vaunted ensembles -- remains, at 70, an imperial fellow on the podium; that chiseled profile is just a little intimidating. Yet his players seem empowered by him, and he by them. One could hear the efficiency and comfort level as the orchestra opened Honegger's brief, bracing work, composed in 1923 and named for a locomotive: Honegger loved trains, he once said, "as others love women or horses."

He also once said the piece actually is an abstract mathematical homage to accelerating rhythms. But the train imagery stands: Tuesday, in those opening passages, ghost chords rose from the strings, like steam, signaling the train coming to life. Next: razor-sharp string attacks, the train's wheels now turning. And then the acceleration: triplet brass figures, tribal percussion, faster and faster -- the clean elegance of the machine age, with echoes of Stravinsky and foreshadowings of Gershwin.

"Alternative Energy" is the most satisfying piece I've yet heard from Bates, 35, who lives in Oakland and now Chicago, where he is a composer-in-residence with the CSO, which commissioned this new piece. Famous for his parallel career as a DJ (with the moniker "Masonic") he has an abiding interest in dance rhythms and the integration of computer-triggered samples into the orchestral fabric. He is a prolific craftsman -- sometimes too much of a craftsman, working up colorful surface effects and clever atmospherics, but without generating a convincing musical core.

This new piece -- Bates calls it an "energy symphony" in four movements -- collapses the walls between his two lives, breaking through to the soulful glee of the dance floor. And like Honegger's work, it is about technology. Bates describes it as a sort of tone poem, spanning centuries: visiting a Midwestern junkyard in the time of Henry Ford, moving on to a particles collider in suburban Chicago, followed by a Chinese nuclear power plant in 2112, and finally a 23rd century Icelandic rainforest where, post-meltdown, folks once again huddle around the campfire.

The piece has an idée fixe -- a spiky, mountain fiddle tune, felicitously turned through Tuesday's performance by concertmaster Robert Chen. It also has a profusion of wildly percussive clatterings that expand like kudzu, even utilizing a noisy wooden crank and the grill of an old Ford. (The latter was grabbed from a junkyard, literally, by Bates and principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh.)

"Alternative Energy" begins with the tick-tock of time and plenty of Midwestern sky peaking through scrims of strings and swooping dollops of winds. And it builds from there, an accelerating enchantment: overlapping pulses, massive chiming effects, "Shaft" beats and halting hoedowns that somehow evoke Chinese opera. In fact, once the orchestra reaches China in 2112, exotic birds seem to be flying everywhere, as muted brass melt into pluming strings, which melt into shimmering flutes and metalophones.

Tuesday, when Bates -- at least I think it was Bates, at his laptop -- released that hard-core techno beat, that was some kind of party on stage: aerialist melodies arching over the dance floor. The orchestra steam-rolled through this madness with precision and humor. It was soulful music, soulfully played.

Ditto for Franck, after intermission: tremulous surges through the first movement; pizzicato strings mimicking a giant guitar in the second. The grandeur of the finale happened with gliding ease, like Fred Astaire. I imagined the orchestra as a big gleaming ship, decked out with banners, moving at a steady clip under the direction of its commander, Riccardo Muti.