Rands – “Danza Petrificada”
Strauss – “Death and Transfiguration” Opus 24
Prokofiev – Suite from “Romeo and Juliet”
Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Performance: Thursday, May 5, 2011
Winding down its 2010-11 season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, gave a wonderful performance on May 5. Exhibited on musical display were all of the elements that make the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the greatest orchestra in the world.
Most of all, it was great to see Riccardo Muti in seeming excellent shape! Hospitalized in October for extreme exhaustion, and having recovered from a lacerated jaw, the result of a fainting spell during a rehearsal, I was concerned at the last moment that I may not be able to see him conduct this season. It’s not a very good omen to have so much bad luck during your inaugural season as the musical director of the CSO! My fears were immediately quashed, for Muti conducted the orchestra in his typically breathtaking style and musicality.
There would be no more fitting a piece to play on Cinco de Mayo than Pulitzer Prize winning composer Bernard Rands’ Danza Petrificada. Commissioned in 2010 for the CSO, Muti stipulated to Rands that the work be a celebration of Mexico’s one hundredth anniversary of its revolution, and two hundredth anniversary of its independence. Being a percussionist myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the use of multiple percussion instruments, and was glad to see that the approach Rands took was of “musical suggestion.” The easier route would have been to whip-up a few Mexican folk songs, but Rands uniquely conveyed a Mexican village as “a banquet of forms, a petrified dance (danza petrificada) under the clouds that make and unmake and never stop making themselves, always in transit toward their future forms.” [From 1930: Vistas Fijas, by Octavio Paz] While it is a relatively short work (just under 10 minutes), the orchestra seemed most buoyant during the performance of this piece over the others performed that evening. It is exciting to play a passionate, new piece from such an eminent contemporary composer!
Next to come was Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. This four movement Post-Romantic tone poem composed by Strauss in 1890 follows the journey of a dying man as he reaches toward the “highest ideal goals” and thus reflects upon his life passing before his tired eyes. Wonderfully orchestrated, and poignantly moving, the CSO performed it as well as its reputation for Romantic music is long. It’s a magnificent, classic example of tone poem Romantic music. It is such a classic enough example that John Williams…um…”borrowed” the leitmotif as a theme in his movie score, “Superman.”
Following a brief intermission, the CSO returned to the stage to perform Suite from Romeo and Juliet, composed by Sergei Prokofiev. While Shakespeare’s play had been the inspiration for countless works of music – including no less than twenty operas – Prokofiev’s work, first performed December 30, 1938, marks the first major ballet. At roughly forty-eight minutes, this suite coveys in rich, floating melodies the story of the tragedy bound lovers in strongly Russian characteristics. It is an amazing piece performed marvelously by the orchestra.
I only heard two major problems with the CSO’s performance that evening. I comment on them in large detail only because I couldn’t believe that one such glaringly obvious problem could occur with this orchestra, let alone two.
First, I was surprised to hear the upper woodwinds – primarily the flutes – having so many intonation problems. When I heard one of the flutes trail flat at the completion of a passage during the Danza Petrificada, I surmised that I must be hearing a ghost. But when it occurred during Death and Transfiguration as well, something was definitely amiss. There were actually a few glances of uneasiness in the audience. Later, during Suite from Romeo and Juliet, the flutes were constantly readjusting their head joints after almost every passage. Well, I thought, at least they can hear what we hear, too. That aside, the evening’s greatest earache was committed by the snare drummer during the Prokofiev. In my forty years of drumming, I have committed as many sins in the form of clams, flubs and miscues as anybody else. But I can honestly say that her roll technique was that of a beginning elementary school student. Absolutely dreadful.
Be that as it may, the concert itself was fascinating. Executed with the musicality you can expect from the world’s greatest orchestra, It seems only fitting that the world’s greatest orchestra should have the world’s greatest string section. Chicago always has been known for its brass section, but the string section’s brilliance, intonation, and its ebb and flow made for a wonderful pleasure, especially during the Prokofiev.
The overall performance of these works by the CSO was superb.