Chicago Symphony: Five and One, for a Perfect Ten

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Oct. 31, 2015)

Wait … that’s not Beethoven Five. Wrong key, wrong notes. It’s … “The Victors.”

A few weeks back, at the first concert of its University Musical Society residency, the New York Philharmonic offered Michigan’s iconic fight song as an encore. Thursday evening, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went the Phil one better: CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti strode out on the Hill Auditorium stage to open the concert with “The Victors.” The house was packed – sold out for this UMS concert – and Muti soon had the multitudinous Michigan fans clapping along and cheering the orchestra’s best plays, like star turns for how-low-can-you-go brass and sudden drops to pianissimo with the orchestra roaring back to score brilliant touchdowns.

For the record, and in case “The Victors” becomes a new repertory staple for visiting orchestras (think of the hit CD you could make, with every orchestra playing it and giving it a personal spin!), the CSO’s “Victors” was more mellow and laid back than the Phil’s, a little slower, a little more plush. Loved it.

And just maybe, the CSO’s way with “The Victors” was a herald of what was to come, though the repertory that followed was certainly more exalted — we did get the promised Beethoven Five, as well as the scheduled Mahler Symphony No. 1.

At intermission and after the concert, I heard lots of comments from fellow audience members about how the CSO’s Beethoven had renewed this best-known of symphonies for them, allowed them to lift it from the well-worn grooves memory had laid down.

It’s true that for most classical music fans, Beethoven Five is so imprinted on the brain that you know and hear every note, every phrase, before it’s played. That can make you love almost any performance – you’re listening to what’s in your head, and it’s good – or it can dull the work with a patina of over-familiarity.

The CSO’s Beethoven Five made you be present. For many patrons I spoke with, it was the energy of the reading that prevailed. For me, it was more the restraint – which doesn’t imply lack of energy in any way. What I loved most was the connections that Muti and the orchestra brought forward: the ties between the last, long note of the opening fate motto and the long note that concludes it a few bars down the pike; the connections between overarching harmonic structures, the work’s scaffolding, and all the notes that get tucked in between those pillars. I loved the long-boned lines of Muti’s reading, the exquisitely controlled and calibrated dynamics and tonal palette, his unrushed tempi, and the graciousness, majesty and pathos of the Andante con moto, the considered-ness of every phrase ending. Every detail was attended to, but the effects never felt over-studied, just perfectly right.

This was the sort of playing that the orchestra brought to the Mahler first symphony post intermission. In the CSO’s performance, the thinnest thread of sound, like the fine-tuned hum of the natural world, admitted cuckoos and, finally, the emergence of song, coalescing from the amorphous prelude. In the second movement, the orchestra brought out the music’s slightly sarcastic, proud rusticity and the contrast with the graceful dance of the trio. The third movement enjoyed its quirky combination of materials, intoning Mahler’s minor-key“ Frere Jacques” like an early Hebraic melody and opening the door wide to klezmer musicians who happened to be in the neighborhood after a funeral march and before the mourning had really begun. The musical gestures were acute, and the effect was to conjure a lost world. The gestures were no less acute in the finale, with silken meditations emerging from darkness and chaos, and with triumph signaled with resplendent brass.

Memorable playing, memorable evening.

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