Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Memories of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera


The Chicago Symphony Orchestra New York Tour, Nov. 15, 2019 (© Todd Rosenberg Photography)My wife and I enjoy hearing different symphony orchestras, as you can read in my recent posts. It’s fascinating to hear their varied sounds and attitudes in close conjunction. After only six weeks, the 2019-2020 concert season has been a very special treat for us, as we suffer through hearing a dozen first class orchestras in some of the world’s finest concert halls.

In October, I enjoyed two American orchestras, the Cleveland and the Philadelphia, then together we heard Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from Munich. This time, we came to Carnegie to hear the much-lauded Chicago Symphony.

We last heard the CSO at Carnegie in October 2012; they opened the Carnegie season with an early Dvorak Symphony and Respighi’s brilliant tone poem Roman Festivals. We had an evening of mishaps getting into the city on a Friday afternoon and coming late to our dinner. But the swirling, dazzling score, complete with off-stage trumpets and screeching piccolo clarinet solos, atoned for this.

It happens that Mrs. Doctor Robert and I play in a community symphony and that a week prior, we had performed the best-known of Respighi’s Roman trilogy, the Pines of Rome. That was the final piece on this program and the reason for our attending.

We came early to Manhattan and spent two relaxing hours at The Cloisters, a museum of Medieval art in the very upper reaches of the island. We skipped dinner, as we had last week, relaxing before the show. Meeting our friend Craig, a self-made fellow with “too much money” who underwrites a private chamber music festival at his home in Rhode Island, we walked to the hall. Our seats were not together.

No second-tier seats were available when I bought our tickets and I dislike the dress circle (the sound is muffled) and the main floor (great sound, poor views). So we climbed to the center balcony where we were reminded of just how steep theater steps can be.

The program opened with Roma, a student symphony by Georges Bizet. It is surprising that the work is almost unknown, as it has all the charm and beautiful melody of Bizet’s mature corpus. The CSO horns played a 24-bar, very hocketed quartet to open the piece, a marvelous display of control and blending, as the melody swaps between first and third horns, neither of whom has even an eighth note of rest in those 24 bars. The little extra time taken at the end was a masterful touch. The 30 minutes of the piece were one joy after another, a succession of fine tunes in a piece of music new to 99 percent of the audience. How wonderful, after 45 years of concert-going, to find such a work. One suspects it is unknown because it is too easy to hear, it’s almost pops music.

The CSO sounded wonderful. Their strings have a warmer sheen than the Cleveland’s or Leipzig’s without the obscuring heaviness of the Philadelphia. Their woodwinds sound like the Cleveland Orchestra of my youth, with lively yet dark timbres and lots of ping in their sounds. First oboist William Welter caught my ear instantly, having the life and breadth that I associate with the finest of oboe players. He’s a 2016 graduate of the Curtis Institute, and playing first in Chicago is his first full-time job. Not a bad start.

The horns had impressed me from their first notes, and the other brasses have toned down the overly-aggressive sound they displayed in the 1990s. It’s a very impressive sound, clearly one shaped by Mr. Muti, who is now win his tenth Chicago season.

After the intermission came The Death of Cleopatra by Hector Berlioz. This “scène lyrique” was also a student work, apparently written to put a thumb in the eye of the Prix du Rome committee. Although one can easily discern the mature Berlioz within it–from the first bar–we found it lacking in interest. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sang its far-too-many verses with perfect control and great beauty, but there is a good reason why this piece was also new to us. Was it virtue-signalling for her to wear a gown which, when the arms extended, revealed a rainbow of colors?

Then came the Pines of Rome, with its large orchestra including a huge battery, pipe organ, celesta and harp, recorded nightingale, and six offstage brasses in the last bars. Muti doubled these to twelve (as we had done the previous week). Respighi’s Roman Trilogy (Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, Roman Festivals) are too Hollywood for some connoisseurs, but Mrs. DocRob and I love them. One must also remember that Respighi wrote them in the 1920s, before there was a Hollywood style; John Williams derives from Respighi, not the other way around. Pines of Rome is the best, depicting four sites in the city, ending with a procession of a Roman Legion down the Appian Way, sort of an “I am Spartacus” moment for conductors. The six offstage brasses are not identified by the composer, who asked for “buccini” (ancient Roman trumpets); his publisher chose “flicorni” or Saxhorns, conical equivalents of trumpets and small tubas. This presents problems for performing organizations, there is no Saxhorn tradition in the US as there is in Europe and Great Britain, so we usually substitute flugelhorns, cornets or trumpets and use French horns and trombones for the lower parts. Chicago used two flugelhorns and four Wagner tubas in a box on the right of the hall and three trumpets, three trombones on the left. The flugelhorns gave a lovely far-off sound to the first calls.

The interpretation was very impressive, with swirling woodwinds, a lovely off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement (played by the on-stage principal, who left and returned), deep romanticism in the slow movement and an outstanding clarinet solo. Principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson did a splendid job with a long and demanding solo, effortlessly bringing his sound within a breath of inaudibility and swelling to full volume. Horns were impressive, the English horn lament was suitably lamentable (but could have come out more from the background), the bass clarinet sounded evil and warm by turns. Muti paced the piece to end slowly, building the tension bar by bar until the final explosion. His baton was restrained and he never drew attention to himself with gesticulation.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra really impressed, they have the warmth of the Philadelphia with the clarity of the Cleveland. Hearing them a week after the Bavarian Radio Symphony was an extraordinary treat, this concert would have been very memorable had the Berlioz not intruded.

After the show, we retired again to the Russian Tea Room for more dinner and vodka. The next day, we moved uptown to hear Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. This opera is one of Mozart’s masterpieces, and we enjoyed it very very much. We should listen to more Mozart. We had come to hear Mrs. Doctor Robert’s favorite classical singer, soprano Nadine Sierra, who starred as Susanna. She was a gem, bringing energy and believable seduction to a demanding role. The rest of the cast was, of course, excellent too—this is, after all, the most important opera company in the world—and the performance hummed along nicely.

It’s not fair to compare the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra doing their sixth performance of the week with the Chicago Symphony on tour. Suffice to say that after a couple of uneven string scales in the rambunctious overture, they played with their usual élan and excellence, nicely capturing the mood on stage. All credit to Mozart for writing so perfectly and soulfully for the orchestral winds within the context of opera. The solos in “Dove Sono” and “Deh vieni, non-tardar” were especially lovely.

Is the CSO the finest of American orchestras? They may be. I have long favored the Cleveland, but the marvelous Chicago string sound and their deeper woodwinds make me wonder. That’s OK, we still have to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic (next week in Boston), Boston Symphony (in January, also in Boston) and of course the NY Philharmonic, (in April at Philharmonic Hall Avery Fisher Hall David Geffen Hall and in May at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam). Don’t forget to read about it here on Ricochet.

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  1. Dr. Bastiat Member

    My cousin plays first viola in the Boston Philharmonic. My middle daughter is a brilliant classical pianist. I’ve got lots of other musical family members. But I don’t think I got that gift. I love listening to her play, but I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.

    I so admire those who do, though.

    To cite an extreme example, I’ve really tried to appreciate JS Bach. But much of it doesn’t even really sound like music to my modern ears. I know that he was big into numerical symmetry as it applies to the most perfect possible music to offer to our God, and lots of other interesting stuff. But I just hear a bunch of notes. I keep working at it, from time to time. 

    But I really don’t get it.

    Great piece, by the way.


    • #1
    • November 17, 2019, at 3:20 PM PST
  2. ddavewes Member

    Thanks for another great review, Doctor Robert.

    I wasn’t at Carnegie Hall on Friday, but I am a Chicagoan. Muti/CSO played this very same program last spring and I heard it then.

    I listened to a bit of the live WQXR stream of the Friday concert (Roma mostly) and it sounded just like the performance from last spring.

    I’m glad I was exposed to Bizet’s Roma. The opening horn quartet is lush and there are several other moments during the rest of the work. It got me to purchase a recording of the work, which I’ve listened to several times since.

    I too was uninterested in the Berlioz Cleopatra work. It was played and sung well, but there was nothing in it that grabbed my attention.

    Muti is tough to beat in Respighi. I heard his Feste Romane in 2012 and that and this Pines were both special. Muti’s tempi were on the slow side, but slow and steady can be really powerful in capable hands. The finale with the extra brass combined with the organ pedal tones shook the building (and put a big smile on my face).

    The new principal oboist, Welter, looks like he’ll be a great one. He plays with a very open tone. When he first joined the orchestra, it took him a while to find how to blend with the other winds. I think he’s got it now. Both Welter and the principal bassoon, Keith Buncke, are both in their 20’s.

    The principal clarinetist, Williamson, is about as good as anyone I’ve heard in playing softly. Sometimes, I swear he’s inhaling when playing, it’s so incredibly soft but characterful.


    • #2
    • November 17, 2019, at 5:14 PM PST
  3. James Lileks Contributor

    Respighi’s Roman Trilogy (Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, Roman Festivals) are too Hollywood for some connoisseurs, but Mrs DocRob and I love them.

    They’re wonderful works. “Hollywood” is a put-down for those who sneer at coloristic virtuosity in favor of some atonal bleating that says something Important about our times. Respighi’s tryptic might be the last unapologetic expression of the old aesthetic.

    The six offstage brasses are not identified by the composer, who asked for “buccini” (ancient Roman trumpets); his publisher chose “flicorni” or Saxhorns, conical equivalents of trumpets and small tubes. This presents problems

    Yes, those rude blatting vuvuzelas. It’s there from the opening bars, those jeering plebe horns counterposed against the official brass, with the see-saw strings speaking for the drunken throngs. It’s so fargin’ programmatic. The way it runs down alleys and spills into plazas, devolves and gathers the chaos into the climax – has there been a better description of civic celebration? How can you listen to that without standing up and shouting?

    Don’t get me started on the third movement, L’Ottobrata – movie music? I wish I could see a movie that deserved those first two minutes.

    • #3
    • November 17, 2019, at 10:52 PM PST
  4. Franz Drumlin Member

    To be able to hear orchestras in places like Carnegie Hall in New York, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam . . . sigh. 

    • #4
    • November 18, 2019, at 9:17 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Hoyacon Member

    Baltimore Symphony pound for pound (i.e. resources per end result).

    • #5
    • November 18, 2019, at 11:36 PM PST
    • Like
  6. Vectorman Thatcher

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Baltimore Symphony pound for pound (i.e. resources per end result).

    The former assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, Andrew Constantine, is now in Fort Wayne Indiana. I’ve enjoyed his style while singing in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus. 

    • #6
    • November 19, 2019, at 8:50 AM PST
    • 1 like