Tuesday, June 24, 2014

With music critics in Chicago – Muti and the Chicago Symphony – Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra

Riccardo Muit and MCANA members / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
Last week I was in Chicago for the annual conference of the Music Critics of North America. Yes, there is such a group. We have about 100 members, which include some big names in classical music criticism like Alex Ross of The New Yorker and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. Because there aren’t all that many full-time classical music critics left in North America, MCANA consists of a lot of free lancers like yours truly. The membership could easily be a lot larger, but many critics haven’t chosen to join for one reason or another. MCANA has launched an online magazine, which recently received $35,000 in grants and is paying writers for articles (I have a Seattle Opera review there). So, we are hoping to attract new members via that angle.

Our conference included two concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plus a meeting with its music director Riccardo Muti, and one concert by the Grant Park Orchestra plus a meeting with its music director Carlos Kalmar. We also had informative panel discussions on a variety of topics and a couple of opulent receptions that gave us the fleeting feeling of importance. I decided to stay an extra day to hear another concert by the Grant Park Orchestra since it was a rare opportunity for me to hear another orchestra under the baton Kalmar, who, as most of you know, is the music director of the Oregon Symphony.

On Tuesday evening (June 17), we heard the CSO under Muti play Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, and Schubert’s First Symphony. This was the last of four performances that the orchestra did of this program, and the hall was almost sold out. The highlight of the concert was the Mozart, which featured the CSO’s principal bassoonist David McGill, who is retiring from the orchestra at the end of the season after 17 years with the band. He will become a professor of bassoon at Northwestern University.

David McGill - Riccardo Muti - CSO / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
McGill’s playing was absolutely gorgeous and flawless. His numerous runs and trills were impeccable and lively. His sound was rich, resonant, and refined and his cadenzas mesmerizing. He brought his sound down to a whisper, which,unfortunately was interrupted by a cell phone somewhere in the hall. Topping it all off, McGill played the entire piece from memory, and he received an ovation from the audience and had to return to the stage three or four times (one time, Muti didn’t let him get to the wing before grabbing him and swinging him back to the front).

Both Schubert pieces were played elegantly by the CSO. The Sixth Symphony featured graceful ensemble work by the principal members of the woodwinds in a couple of extended passages. The sound of smooth and fleet strings enhanced both the Sixth and the First symphonies. Nuanced dynamics made the music a pleasure to hear, but the fourth movement (Allegro vivace) of the Fourth was the most spirited, spurred by Muti, who is 72 years old, who seemed to jump a couple of times.

Just after the concert, in the lobby, I ran into Oregon Symphony violinist Emily Cole and OSO bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann. Both were in town to play with the Grant Park Orchestra as subs. Kuhlmann was still in awe of McGill’s performance.
Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein, CSO vice president Martha Gilmer, CSO violinist David Taylor, composer Anna Clyne, and composer Mason Bates / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
The next day, my colleagues and I heard a panel that included CSO composers-in-residence Anna Clyne and Mason Bates talk about the CSO sound. We also caught an afternoon rehearsal with Muti and the CSO of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, which was followed by an hour-long interview with Muti. He is quite a passionate speaker and a storyteller, and he likes to flirt a little bit with women. He talked to us about the importance of music criticism, and encouraged us to explain its cultural relevance. He sees music as a way to elevate humankind, and he feels that music can save the world. After he returns to Europe this summer, he will conduct musicians from 20 different nations in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at a war cemetery that contains over 300,000 unmarked graves. This will be a concert for peace and the audience will consist of people from many cultures, languages, and religions. He feels that music is above politics, but he is worried that classical music has been stigmatized as elitist and confined to concert halls.

Muti talking with MCANA members
 Muti is also very interested in making sure that Verdi’s music is performed correctly. He finds that, over the years, singers have taken too many liberties with the music. For example, when the tenors hang onto high notes before coming down to the tonic that causes the audience to get all stirred up (Muti: “fever”) and he calls it a “dirty trick.” He doesn’t think that “historically informed” performances are all that great, pointing out that Salieri conducted Haydn’s Creation with 1,000 musicians. He dismissed the early music purists as fundamentalists and “vegetarians of music.” For Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which the CSO will perform the next evening, he got a hold of the original score, which clearly shows that the solo line for bass violin in the third movement is really for one instrumentalist and not for a group as the new edition that was issued by the Mahler Society had claimed. Now it turns out that the Mahler Society has realized its mistake and will republish the edition with that correction. The CSO will do a Scriabin cycle next year, and he thinks that Scriabin’s music will become very popular in the future. Muti joined us in a photograph, and that is what is posted at the top of this article.

Looking down on Grant Park/Millennium Park/Pritzker Pavilion from the Cliff Dwellers Club
 Throughout the day, the weather shifted to very stormy and rainy, but that didn’t deter anyone from going to Grant Park to hear the Grant Park Orchestra. That orchestra is the main band of the Grant Park Music Festival, which is the nation’s only free, summer-long outdoor classical music series. It was founded in 1935 and this year is its 80th season. Kalmar is now in his 14th season as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the GPMF.

The orchestra was onstage for the concert on Wednesday evening (June 18th) and warming up with thunder and lightning struck. Rain began to pour down in buckets and that overflowed the drainage system on top of the Frank Geary-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Water started to gush down from the roof and hit the stage right in front of the podium. The orchestra quickly exited the stage, and the audience was asked to move to east-side parking garage. I found out later that the park management was very worried that the lightning would strike the metal surface of the Pavilion and the damage that might ensue (it is grounded, but there are still a lot of ifs that only a real lightning strike would “resolve”).

Jackiw, Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra
 After the deluge stopped (30 minutes later), the audience was told that the concert would start. We reassembled in the front part which has 4,000 seats. I found out from the GPMF press relations guru Jill Hurwitz that 1,200 had stayed to hear the concert. Kalmar and company decided to forgo the first piece, Otto Nicolai’s Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”) with guest artist Stefan Jackiw (who has performed in Portland a couple of times with the OSO). Due to the ominous clouds overhead, the orchestra and Jackiw took the Mozart at about as fast as possible without getting a speeding ticket. It was absolutely amazing to see Jackiw fingers fly in this performance, and he and the orchestra were still able to convey the elegant emotion of the piece. During the pauses between movements, they were interrupted by ambulances and police sirens, but their patience paid off as they finished in lively and refined fashion.

After the applause ended, the larger orchestral forces quickly took their places and Kalmar got them launched in Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 3, a rarely heard work. It started energetically, with muscular and broad brush strokes by Kalmar, but just a few minutes later, thunder and lighten started to smack the skies. I saw at least four flashes of lightning, and they were… not far away, and the thunder was like an amplified bowling alley. So, part officials bolted from the wings onto the stage and closed the concert. Kalmar faced the audience and shrugged his shoulders. He then came to the lip of the stage and applauded the audience (which had shrunk to about 600) for staying. People came up to him to shake his hand and talk. I said hello, and he teased me about bringing rain from Oregon. Another fellow talked with him in Spanish, and he signed programs for others. It was a disappointing end to the concert, but people were still upbeat, and Kalmar greeted all who came forward.

Kalmar and audience
The next day (Thursday, June 19), several of my colleagues and I returned to the Pritzker Pavilion and met with some of the administrative staff of the GPMF, including President and CEO Paul Winberg (who used to be the executive director of the Eugene Symphony) and Ed Uhlir, Executive Director of the Millennium Park Foundation, who was extremely instrumental in signing up Frank Geary to design the Pavilion. Since that morning’s rehearsal had just ended, Kalmar also came by to talk about the GPMF, and its unique mission, and the superb acoustics on the stage of the Pavilion. He also mentioned that Jackiw has sort of a weather-jinx about him in regards to the festival. The last time he was scheduled to play there, they received tornado warnings and had the cancel the concert.
Ed Uhlir, Carlos Kalmar, and Jill Hurwitz
 That evening, I heard the CSO under Muti perform Schubert’s Fifth Symphony followed by Mahler’s First. The Schubert started with a wonderful conversation tone that was reminded me of Mozart. The strings again excelled in every direction, the dynamics engaging, and the brief Rossini-esque nod in the last movement (Allegro vivace) was delightful. The Mahler was packed with great dynamic contrasts and it was terrific to hear an orchestra with a massive string section to counter-balance the percussion and brass. The high-wire sound of the violins was terrific, the offstage trumpets sounded wonderfully in the distance, and the harp absolutely clear and enchanting. The brass sparkled, especially the bracing rip of the horns in the first movement and the grand sound in the final movement. The solo bass violin (principal Alexander Hanna) was plaintive and moving. Hats off to the percussion and timpani (double-matching sets) for a rabble rousing finale. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh’s technique on the bass drum was astonishing and a thing of beauty to watch. The Mahler brought down the house – everyone was standing and bravos echoed about.
Muti conducting the Mahler 1
 The next evening (Friday, June 20) I returned to the Pritzker Pavilion to hear the Grant Park Orchestra under Kalmar perform the Suite from Handel’s “Water Music” in an arrangement by Hamilton Harty, Carl Maria von Webers “Jubel-Overtüre, and Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. This time, the weather cooperated nicely. The orchestra members are quite adept at turn the pages of the score and securing them with oversized wooden pins (kind of like clothes line pins) in case the wind kicks up. Even Kalmar has a weight that he uses to keep his score from flapping in the breeze.

Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra
Because Harty’s arrangement of Handel’s “Water Music” is for a large orchestra, the sound was much more expansive and grand than what is typically heard a Baroque-sized chamber ensemble. The Grant Park Orchestra played this piece with terrific definition and the work or principal oboist Nathan Mills was superb. The strings conquered the Weber with fast and accurate finger work, and a smile came over the faces of much of the audience when it heard the familiar strains of “My country tis of thee” in the finale. Elgar’s First Symphony was impressively played with the big romantic melody in the last movement was a hit with the audience. It seemed to me that the orchestra should have been a little quieter during the solos that the concertmaster played. I enjoyed hearing the orchestra with the aid of the amplification, but it didn’t have quite the clarity of a concert hall. It would be fun to return some day to hear the orchestra and its chorus in one of the spectacular pieces that Kalmar schedules. If all of the seats are full and the lawn is filled to capacity (another 6,000), then the GPMF can easily provide live concerts to 10,000 people. I’m sure that the festival provides an entry point for many people who have never heard live classical concerts or can’t afford to hear them. What a great accomplishment.


bob priest said...

thanx for the terrific review here of a very fun time in chicago - you lucky devil!!!

as for maestro muti, now, THAT'S a guy with the right "conductor hair!" careers are built on such a gift!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your extensive recap of your Chicago visit and the usual wonderfully detailed reviews of the concerts. Always nice to hear what is going on outside our fair city.

curtis heikkinen said...

I'm not anonymous, James. Not sure what happened. Those comments were by me, Curtis Heikkinen.

James Bash said...

Thanks Bob and Curtis! Glad to know that you enjoyed reading it.