Chicago Symphony brass, mezzo Margaine in the spotlight with world premiere, French rarity

February 04, 2018
Brass players Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon and Gene Pokorny were the soloists in the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Low Brass with Riccardo Muti conducting the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Brass players Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon and Gene Pokorny were the soloists in the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass with Riccardo Muti conducting the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On Thursday night, Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a rich, wide-ranging evening that managed to serve up an American world premiere and French vocal rarity in a program that steadfastly avoided the usual repertorial suspects. With the CSO music director’s contract extended two more years through 2022 earlier this week, let’s hope that enterprising programs like this become the standard rather than the exception in Muti’s remaining seasons in Chicago.

The main order of business in this program–Muti’s fourth week of concerts in Chicago since the season opened last fall–was the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass, commissioned by the CSO.

It is invariably an orchestra’s woodwind and string principals who get tapped to strut their stuff in the solo spotlight. So it was a capital idea to commission a work that would give four of the CSO’s world class yet lower-profile brass members a rare chance to shine as concerto soloists.

In their conversations with the composer, the soloists–principal trombone Jay Friedman, trombone Michael Mulcahy, bass trombone Charles Vernon and tuba Gene Pokorny—emphasized that though this may be a Concerto for Low Brass, they didn’t want a work centered on low comedy. No rustic galumphing or dancing hippos, as is too often the case for their instruments. Higdon has nicely obliged with her concerto, which received a successful and largely effective sendoff in its world premiere.

The concerto opens with a stately chorale theme played by all four soloists, who gave it a burnished tone and noble expression. The seesawing theme is then taken up by the strings. An easy-going ambling dominates the early going, and the tempo eventually accelerates with a contrasting, jazz-like motive. Fast and slow sections alternate for the remainder of this 17-minute work. A grand, striding theme for orchestra arises and is developed between soloists and orchestra with increasing fire and virtuosity en route to an emphatic final chord.

Higdon’s concise concerto is crafted in her usual accessible, user-friendly style and went down well at its unveiling Thursday night. The veteran CSO brass players brought customary technical facility and tonal gleam to the proceedings, handling the score’s demands with unruffled panache.

It’s probably a good thing that the concerto feels too short rather than too long. If there is a complaint, it’s that one wishes there were more standout solo opportunities for each of the four players. Jay Friedman gets a chance to display his eloquent musicianship in an elegiac passage and there is a bit more separation between the  solo instruments in the rollicking final section. But the vast majority of the writing places the four players in such tight musical alignment that there is little chance to display their unique sound or individual musical personalities–which was supposedly the rationale for the piece in the first place.

Granted, in a work this short there’s not a whole lot of space for four players to chart their own varied paths. (The premiere performance ran 20 minutes, slightly longer than the 15 to 17 minutes indicated in the score.) Perhaps some revision and judicious expansion to Higdon’s likable concerto might allow each of the four soloists to stand out a bit more and differentiate their instruments more than is currently the case.

Muti provided his brass colleagues with superb backing and the kind of focused, well-prepared rehearsal he routinely brings to premieres. Some of the orchestral writing is rather thick and uncharacteristically heavy by Higdon’s usual transparent standard; thinning out textures in a few sections wouldn’t hurt this music either.

The concerto premiere, understandably, got the most pre-concert press attention. But it was the performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poéme de l’amour et de la mer with Clémentine Margaine, that provided the high point of the evening.

Clémentine Margaine performed Chaussons' "xxx " with the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Clémentine Margaine performed Chausson’s “Poéme de l’amour et de la mer” with the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Chausson’s output is fairly circumscribed, in no small part due to his early death at age 44 in a biking accident. Yet the best of his music is crafted with uncommon care and striking originality. It’s hard not to feel that the Poéme de l’amour et de la mer is Chausson’s masterpiece–especially given the extraordinary performance by Margaine and the CSO Thursday night.

An extended vocal scena for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra, the work is set to two long poems by Maurice Bouchor, centered on a depiction of the sea as metaphor for a tragic, failed love affair. If Boucher’s poetry is not exactly timeless, Chausson’s scoring for large orchestra is masterful–by turns sumptuous, evocative, and intimate yet always skillfully balanced with the soloist.

Clémentine Margaine is currently enjoying a breakout career. The French mezzo made a notable Lyric Opera debut as Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte in 2016, earned roaring acclaim a month later in her Met bow as Carmen.

The singer inhabited Chausson’s melancholy protagonist as completely as if she were portraying a character in a staged opera. Margaine’s dusky voice is ideal for this music–refined and flexible yet with reserves of power. Her singing of the French text was, of course, as assured and as idiomatic as one would expect. Yet most impressive was how her vocalism was always on point, expressive and engaged with the text–as with her numbed tone at the climactic word “oubli” (oblivion). Margaine conveyed the shifting moods with a natural, unforced quality that was all the more affecting for its restraint and understatement.

The singer also benefited from quite glorious playing of the orchestra under Muti’s direction. The conductor was at his finest in this unlikely score; Muti provided Margaine with glovelike support and artful balancing of the large forces, judging the ebb and flow of this music with a natural, breathing rubato. Apart from an overloud oboe at the coda from guest Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida (principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony), the orchestra playing was as stunning as it was sensitive, making one marvel at the ingenuity and sheer beauty of Chausson’s music.

The other part of the sea-inspired second half fared less well. The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes were as powerfully played by the orchestra as one could want with whipcrack corporate virtuosity to spare. But Muti seemed to view these excerpts from Britten’s downbeat opera as a kind of souped-up sonic showpiece. There was zero nuance or atmosphere in his cinematic approach to this evocative music, much less any sense of the brooding melancholy of the haunted fisherman protagonist. Every wind solo was underlined, boldfaced and italicized to little benefit with a predictably cataclysmic storm scene to close the evening.

Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique led off the program. In his first podium appearance with the CSO in 1925, Stravinsky himself led a performance of his Op. 3.

The subversive, antic humor of this early work was rather lost in Muti’s relentless, high-beam style. But taken at a brisk pace and finely balanced, the flamboyant, personality-plus woodwind playing provided ample rewards, and pre-echoes of the composer’s Firebird could be glimpsed on the horizon.

The program will be repeated on the CSO’s East Coast tour this month. cso.org; 312-294-3000.


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