Concert Review: Chicago Symphony in Taipei

It was another one of those two-night concert specials, a foreign ensemble coming to Taipei, but this time one I should have had a much greater chance hearing in my home country: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Muti.

The Chicago Symphony is (for good reason) hailed as one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras. Add them to recent visits by the Vienna Philharmonic and Concertgebouw, as well as upcoming visits by the Berlin Philharmonic, and I’m feeling pretty great about the music scene in Taipei (not to mention the Munich Philharmonic’s recent visit, which, while not gaining a place on most “world’s best” lists, was one of the greatest concert experiences I’ve ever had).

When Vienna and the RCO came, there was no question I’d go to both nights of each (even if the latter was surprisingly disappointing), but when Munich came around, I wasn’t willing to shell out that much money for both nights, so I went to only one, and it was beyond marvelous. I regretted not having gone to both nights.

Then Chicago goes on sale, and I was debating whether to go to both nights or not. One of the pieces on the program the first night is one that Vienna played while they were here, and another from that night is one that seemed to be on every program everywhere a few years ago, but I ultimately decided it would be kind of stupid not to go… so, again, I went to both nights. Programs as follows:


The first night contained two pieces I’ve heard as often if not more often than any other concert pieces in the history of my being, Prokofiev’s first ‘classical’ symphony (fourth time in the concert hall) and Tchaikovsky’s fourth, also at least the third or fourth time, I think. But never by the Chicago symphony.

The Prokofiev, in retrospect, set the tone for both nights of concerts. A small, “naughty” caricature of a Haydn symphony (in the word of my companion for the concert that night), it can be played (as I have heard it before) torpidly or plainly, but it roared with Chicago, or rather popped and burst, moments of quiet, stringed delicacy shred in two by a flute or brass or timpani here and there. The piece always brings a smile to my face and it was a great way to begin the evening.

The only piece of the two evenings that I’d never heard was the Hindemith, for brass and strings. That description does seem odd, to me. I don’t usually think of brass instruments as warm and supple, shimmery or velvety, but this is the Chicago brass. In their recordings under Solti, they roared and growled and stole the show when they needed to. World-famous for a reason, I guess. And the Hindemith opened that way; it reminded me of the searing, majestic, ear-shattering power of the opening of Janacek’s Sinfonietta, but after a really bold, complex opening, the piece unfolds into extreme beauty, a dark, smooth, caramel-y richness, but not without a bite. It’s clearly modern, and sounds Hindemith-ish, but was really a treasure to hear, especially from the Chicago symphony, a surprising delight.

After the intermission, we returned for Tchaikovsky, maybe my favorite of his symphonies, the fourth. It was the most Brucknerian Tchaikovsky I’ve ever heard. From the opening, again brass features strongly, setting (or rather searing) the mood for the entire piece. That fate theme is the centerpiece of the entire work, and it roared from the brass. As the other instruments enter and melodies are introduced, the work unfurled as a dark, rich, warm, but powerful, towering, even frightening work, Brucknerian is the best way I can describe it, just awesomely big. That’s not to say the delicate, lyrical Russian moments were lost, oh no. They were there in all their expressive, poignant beauty, but the perfect balance of the two, the contrast between the terrifyingly awesome, even brutal and the pristinely eloquent lyricism was a juxtaposition that held strongly throughout the performance. It might be the best single performance of the work I’ve heard, live or otherwise. Really stunning, a rare opportunity to be present for.

The second evening I went alone, and it was a night of two crowd-pleasers: Beethoven and Mahler. This was the night that was sold out, but I’m not sure if it was because of Beethoven or Mahler. Let’s pause here: the only way these two nights could have been more fate-themed is if they played Mahler’s sixth instead of his first. Tchaikovsky 4 and Beethoven 5 are both fate-focused pieces, and even Mahler’s pastoral-ish first has its tragedy and triumph. It is also the only Mahler symphony I can recall Muti recording.

Beethoven 5 might be the most famous symphony ever written. Ask someone to hum classical music, and it’s extremely likely those first four notes of this work will come out. What’s a shame, though, is that most people don’t get beyond that, I think. The entire thirty-something minute work is a gem, an incredible, moving, compact journey.

I don’t mean to get all “Well, I prefer it this way,” but I have my preferences for both of the composers from tonight. As for Beethoven, I prefer the pared-down, limber, light, classical approaches of Chailly or Harnoncourt over Bernstein or Karajan, and Muti’s reading was much more toward the latter two, a romanticized, rich, powerful reading, really digging into the work. That’s fine! Here’s why.

It’s convincing. When I have laying before me a dozen choices of what version of Beethoven to listen to, it wouldn’t be Bernstein or Karajan (gasp) and maybe not Muti, but they played the hell out of the work, and it sold me. “Set aside your taste for light, fast, quick, classical-era Beethoven,” they said, “because this is soul-crushing, powerful stuff.” And it was. The first movement wasn’t over-the-top dramatic, but the middle two were a bit more. What always gets me about the work is the triumphant, glorious, finale, celebratory in spite of or because of or in contrast with tragedy or fate or whatever else, and I did get emotional. The impression of the Tchaikovsky the previous night was one of severity, drama, challenge, and emotional seriousness. The Beethoven was the outpouring of the very souls of the players; Tchaikovsky had an emotional urgency to be expressed; Beethoven was life or death, and it won.

Second was Mahler. Again with my preferences. Boulez:

 

You are sorely missed by many, monsieur…

I’ve been listening a lot lately to Boulez’s incredible cycle of the Mahler symphonies, and the first is played by the wonderful Chicago symphony. You might not be aware, but Boulez’s Mahler is known for being sterilely clean, an x-ray of Mahler’s score, to-the-letter execution of the score. I, for one, quite love that, while others miss the drama and gushiness of someone like Bernstein. Muti conducts Mahler like an Italian, operatic Bernstein. And again, I don’t dislike it. It was convincing.

 

The first movement got off to an almost uneasy start, giving the woodwinds a little time to get their sea legs with the birdcalls and chirping that pervade the movement. Muti’s tempi were a bit broad throughout the entire piece, but looking again at Mahler’s markings, “restrained,” or “not too quickly” Muti did that. The slightly more stately tempi gave him a bit more room to do some tempo changes here and there that Boulez wouldn’t do, but that’s not to make a comparison. By the time the first movement had really blossomed, the band was solid and strong, but still ‘restrained.’

It was tense, man, always kind of suppressed, even in its brighter moments, until the second movement came and cleared the air; I could finally breathe. Morning fog had burned off, rolled away, and the incredibly Austrian Ländler soared at Muti’s beckoning. The third movement’s funeral march was indeed “without dragging” but not as brisk as Bernstein would have it. It brought tears to my eyes; I’ve always had a strangely strong reaction to this movement. The klezmer-ish contrasting theme seemed loose and flowy, with plucked strings and all the rest, incredible contrast to the opening theme (played incredibly well by the bassist, as Mahler called for in the score!) The pulses at the end of the movement were like the final two beats of a heart, and immediately the finale began.

This was the movement where they shined, where incredible performing, Austrian-sounding strings, powerful brass, thundering percussion came together with a meaningful interpretation and logical approach to tie the work together. In some ways, it’s similar to the Tchaikovsky, with the opening theme from the first movement making an appearance. The reappearance of that theme was incredibly fulfilling; it felt like the main points were ever so subtly highlighted, so that if you’d never heard the work before, you’d get the whole thing, know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had come full circle.

Even more final than that was the last. two. finishing. notes. of the work, like the opening two of Beethoven’s Eroica, simple sounds, but difficult to pull off. Some play it soft and fluffy, or gloss over them, others play them slow and torpidly, but I was so pleased to hear the last two sounds Muti and the Chicago symphony would make for us were two perfectly-paced, crunchy, full-bodied crisp roars to cap off the symphony. It wasn’t an analytical Boulezian surgical reading of the score, but it was powerful, even a bit brazen.

To hear an ensemble like the Chicago Symphony live is incredible, but it’s still kind of funny to me that I moved 13,000 km away from my hometown and heard an orchestra whose home is only 1,000 km from where I lived for decades. But I’m not complaining. Thank you Chicago. My kind of orchestra.

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