Chicago Symphony brings its power and finesse to the Kravis Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Stephen Williamson performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday afternoon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has long been regarded as one of America’s top five ensembles. With its distinguished music director Riccardo Muti at the helm, the Chicagoans impressively demonstrated that they remain one of the world’s best Thursday afternoon at the Kravis Center, in the second of their two West Palm Beach programs. 

This ensemble commands strength in every instrumental department, and Muti has welded the players into a corporate unit that can turn on a dime from a lean Classical sonority to lush and expansive waves of sound in big orchestral showpieces.

Muti has long been renowned as an opera conductor. The Overture to I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi, the concert’s opener, was more than a mere barnburner. Muti brought subtlety and finesse as well as fiery urgency to this curtain raiser. The opening chords were filled with tension and Muti kept the musical drama vivid right up to the final bars. His expert balancing of the voluminous strings with solid brass and winds also highlighted the percussive underpinnings. The big cello theme was shaped with fluidity, like instrumental bel canto. For all the visceral impact of the brassy climaxes, the performance’s most striking moments came in the soft section where the violins’ unity and sweetness of tone stood out.

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was one of his last works, dating from the fateful year of 1791. Stephen Williamson, the orchestra’s principal clarinet, took the solo reigns in a performance both polished and elegant. 

Muti utilized a reduced orchestral contingent with just four cellos and two basses joining the small violin complement. With Muti drawing silken string tone, the opening orchestral tutti was lithe and taut. Williamson’s gleaming, clear sound and agility through Mozart’s winding phrases was matched by his ability to spin the music in long arcs, bereft of breathiness.  His lower register was particularly striking, the tone burnished and mahogany tinged. 

The second movement Adagio brings one of Mozart’s most sublime melodies and Williamson played it with great purity of line. His collaboration with Muti and the players reached a higher expressive level as the restrained dynamics of the final reprise found soloist and ensemble seemingly breathing as one. 

Williamson’s invigorating traversal of the concluding Rondo was right out of opera buffa with its high spirits and rapid-fire articulation. His playing was often technically dazzling without breaking the musical pulse. Following the clarinet’s final phrases, Williamson played the brief orchestral postlude along with the ensemble. This was vastly preferable to some clarinetists’ trick of holding the final note while the orchestra finishes (which is both overtly exhibitionist and musically vulgar). The entire performance was marked by Classical restraint and idiomatic acuity.

The music of Ernest Chausson is seldom played except for his Poéme for violin. During his brief life, the French composer wrote some fine works that display a distinctive Gallic sensibility mixed with Germanic and Russian romantic influences. (His Symphony in B-flat, once a near repertoire staple, is particularly deserving of revival.) 

Props to Muti for programming Chausson’s Poéme de l’amour et de la mer. A setting of two poems by Maurice Bouchor about lost love, the work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra is richly chromatic and darkly romantic. The influence of Richard Wagner hovers above this sensuous score. 

Clémentine Margaine was the superb solo protagonist. This French mezzo has garnered accolades in operatic circles recently and for good reason. Margaine utilizes her smoky timbre and sizable instrument to  dramatic effect. Her fine sense of Gallic style and supple vocal inflections are matched by strong theatrical instincts. Margaine’s regal bearing and facial expressions encompassed the sadness and tragedy of the text. As the protagonist’s mood turned to despair, her declamation became more intense without sacrificing vocal beauty. Margaine’s timbre turned pale as she intoned the final phrase “notre amour est mort à jamais’ (our love is dead forever). She is a terrific singing actress.

Muti provided an attentive orchestral soundscape. He brought out the churning drama and melancholy aura of the orchestral writing, particularly in the Interlude with the lean tone and strong accent of John Sharp’s cello solo seeming to announce finality. Near the work’s conclusion, the perfect coordination and matching timbres of Li-Kuo Chang’s viola and Margaine’s voice channeled an array of dark colors.

The program concluded with “Four Sea Interludes”from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. There was not much mist or fog above this sea in Muti’s interpretation and the “Moonlight” music lacked mystery. Muti played the score as an orchestral showpiece in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe or orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. 

Still, Britten’s atmospheric score provided an impressive display of the orchestra’s brilliance and versatility. Muti brought appropriate tempestuous energy to the storm music. The  brass provided plenty of thrust but the moments of calm really registered with Muti drawing out the string phrases and the harp’s arpeggios.

Muti and the Chicago Symphony will be returning to the Kravis Center next season (albeit in Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov warhorses) and Arts Naples has announced that the Chicagoans will begin a three-year annual residency at the Naples Performing Arts Center in 2019.

The Regional Arts concert series continues with Nathan Aspinall conducting the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Behzod Abduraimov 2 p.m. February 27 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Chicago Symphony brings its power and finesse to the Kravis Center”

  1. Posted Feb 19, 2018 at 1:36 pm by Hubert Harriman

    I was very disappointed that there was no review of the previous night’s performance. I was especially interested in the Higdon piece and really wanted to go but could not.

  2. Posted Feb 19, 2018 at 3:03 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    David Fleshler was assigned to cover the first CSO program but had to bow out due to the breaking news coverage of the Parkland school shooting. (As some of you know, David’s day job is as a reporter with the Sun-Sentinel.)

    The Higdon Low Brass Concerto was reviewed twice on other Classical Review sites: the world premiere in Chicago here and the New York performance at Carnegie here.

  3. Posted Feb 20, 2018 at 3:53 pm by Hubert Harriman

    Thank you!

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