Davies Hall, San Francisco
Tuesday, February 20, 2012
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Honegger: Pacific 231 (1923)
Bates: Alternative Energy (2012)
Franck: Symphony in D-minor (1888)
Choose wisely what and how you imitate…. This may be the composer’s lesson to take away from last Tuesday’s much anticipated San Francisco visit by the Chicago Symphony, led by Riccardo Muti. Though Muti’s program concluded traditionally, with the Franck Symphony in D-minor, the first half of his concert was devoted to two pieces which undertake, with differing levels of success, the engineering of musical expression through depiction.
Arthur Honegger’s 1923 “Pacific 231” is a classic in the genre, evoking without artificial means the composer’s sense of a locomotive getting under way, carrying out a swift journey and sweeping to a halt at the next station. You might say this is an early version of “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” This writer lived 100 feet from a locomotive yard for several years during childhood, fascinated with the many steam engines, and I am always astonished to find how realistic and economical a piece of music “Pacific 231” actually is. It sounds like the barnyard of my youth.
Honegger captures perfectly the tendrils of a locomotive “panting” at rest like an animal, and the slow-groan start-up of the wheels. He is especially convincing with the wild slippage which occurs, when drive wheels accelerate too quickly and throw the smokestack into desperate syncopations. And at the end, as the uncontrollable weight of the locomotive hurtles into the station for a fire-breathing halt before us, the kinetic sense of flying smoke and desperately back-pedalling rocker-arms is frantic and real. You can almost smell tar in the smoke. In between, you might say, the music occurs, as the locomotive, having achieved cruising speed, pops along benevolently in the middle distance like the engine in “Soul Train” with its candy-cane smoke.
This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear “Pacific 231” performed live. On CD there still exists a propulsive Bernstein rendition and a newer, more evocative, luminously recorded one by Jean Fournet on Denon. In the hands of Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony, though, the Davies audience experienced something closer to a sight reading of the work—as unlikely as that might be in a concert by an orchestra on tour. There is more forward motion and propulsion to “Pacific 231” than we heard here. The Chicago Symphony, however, proved itself immediately as an orchestra, summoning effortlessly the great weight and brass power for which it is known. Any failing may have been Muti’s unwillingness simply to push forward as sweepingly as possible. As it was, he seemed a bit stuck in the noise of wheels and gears.
It was intriguing to notice here (and elsewhere during the evening) Muti’s repeated tendency to bring down the general volume level of the orchestra. In fact, “shushing” it seemed to be the notable dynamic conducting challenge on his mind. Muti held the orchestra back so often with one hand, that when he wanted volume, he had to nod openly towards the players, as if to say, “I won’t interfere this time.” It left me wondering if the orchestra feels it must force its tone a bit to be heard on the usual Chicago Stage. But here and there throughout the evening, despite Muti’s efforts, some of the playing seemed unnecessarily loud and bluff for Davies Hall.
A different criticism springs to mind, when we consider Mason Bates’ “Alternative Energy” Symphony, which followed the Honegger: the notion of clichés in sound. Bates is a Northern California DJ, recently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, known for doing things electronically, so it was no surprise to see that numerous massive loudspeakers were lined up onstage with the orchestra to supply recorded effects. But it was a red flag just the same.
Bates sets out to depict human technological advances (or not, as the case may be) starting in the Henry Ford era—in a parts junkyard—and ending, after some unpleasant nuclear events, in what remains of a rainforest. Much is made of “cranking up” an engine throughout the piece. But Bates’ choice of the means to do this is an annoying-sounding ratchet that sounds more like an amplified leftover from birthday party than a crank from an internal combustion engine. If Mason Bates has ever so much as pulled the lanyard on a lawnmower, I’d beg to inform him that reciprocating engines don’t sound like this!
But that was just the beginning of my discomfort. Bates’ music repeatedly gives us recorded versions of what he ought to be depicting with instruments. There must have been a hundred of those tiresome Hollywood KACHUNG!s that you hear in film, where the villain refuses to die and bursts in to attack you. And the nuclear particle accelerator Bates next attempts to describe sounds like—well—a decently recorded particle accelerator! Once again, no surprise, just the easy plot of an easy movie, expressed the easy way.
And the music was certainly pleasant enough—clever enough, even—it swooped and swept along nicely, if chattering too much at times like John Adams. People applauded. But does one go to the Symphony to experience the equivalent of an Al Gore movie with recorded sound effects? I think not. Many years ago, a recording of the “Nightingale” songs in Respighi’s Pines of Rome failed to work properly at a Kennedy Center concert. After realizing the tape wasn’t going to come in, the National Symphony players started chirping. It all happened a bar late, but it was beautiful, creative and effective. Respighi was always—and I think rightly— disrespected for having chosen an artificial means of composition. It simply wasn’t necessary. Mason Bates needs to learn that lesson. If the day came that he could express for orchestra alone all that he tried for here with electronic crutches—his music would appear less lame.
Mason Bates has many years to free himself from his easy enthusiasms. César Franck, however, is past revision or even revival, having been run over by a bus not long after composing this symphony, so it is up to the interpreter to take the music from the perfumed and prudish Catholicism Franck gave us and forge something a bit more modern and significant for our time. A few conductors, (Leinsdorf was an example) have taken a heavy, brooding Wagnerian journey through the music, darkening its meaning beyond church walls. That seems to work well. The opposite pole has been occupied by the numerous deodorized and more febrile performances by such as Munch, Monteux, Almeida and Dutoit. Indeed, the 1961 Monteux performance with the Chicago Symphony is still considered the greatest recording of the D-minor ever made.
It was doubly interesting, then, to see what Riccardo Muti would make of the symphony. The result was extremely consistent with everything we know about Muti’s conducting in the past. When Muti first took on the Philadelphia Orchestra several decades ago, it seemed at first as though he were trying to graft Karajan on top of Ormandy. Ormandy’s strings were lush, but his attacks fairly solid. Muti blurred them at first like Karajan, and the result was beautiful mush without enough power. A few years into it, though, he tightened up a bit and got things to sound in the “middle of the road” way that he now pursues. If there is a criticism I would lay at Muti’s door, it would be similar to what one might feel about Riccardo Chailly—namely that a performance tends to be a bit generic and efficient. There is something of the “man in the grey flannel suit” to them both.
In practice, this means that we heard a beautiful Franck from Muti and the CSO, with just the right touches of rubato and energy, but without the last iota of meaningful fire, which is different from merely being loud. Muti tends to accept textures on automatic pilot, more concerned with too loud or too soft, so there was not so much light and shade as one hears in the Monteux performance tradition. The Symphony can shimmer in places like Mozart, but only if one shades everything. Muti painted with a fairly thick brush. That said, it was interesting to observe that the conductor, now in his seventies, seemed youthful and timeless.
There is no flagging of his energy—just the serenity of having done it many times before—and if one perhaps no longer expects, if one ever did, original and new perspectives, one is clearly in the presence of a master conductor before a great orchestra. It will be intriguing to see where the relationship with the Chicago Symphony takes him.