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CSO in Europe: Adjusting to an intimate hall, touring orchestra steps up by dialing down

Submitted by on Jan 20, 2017 – 8:40 am

The interior of the Musikkens Hus is a swirl of curves. (Todd Rosenberg)

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti figure out a small Danish venue in mid-performance.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

AALBORG, Denmark – Even the cab drivers in this city of 200,000 residents are proud of the Musikkens Hus, an intimate and distinctively modernist 1,300-seat concert hall that opened two years ago. Concerts Jan. 16-17 by the touring Chicago Symphony Orchestra bore out that civic pride.

Not a right angle to be found in the lobby of Aalborg's Musikkens Hus. (Todd Rosenberg)Anyway, the second one did, once music director Riccardo Muti and the orchestra adjusted to a performing space a good deal more compact than the vast acoustical reaches of the two prior venues they had played – the Philharmonie in Paris and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

And whereas both the two-year-old Paris hall and the brand-new one in Hamburg presented circular configurations seating more than 2,000 listeners, the almost chamber-scaled Musikkens Hus – or House of Music – offered something of a throwback to the shoebox shape that once dominated concert-hall design.

Still, the Musikkens Hus speaks of its time in both the acute angles of the building’s exterior and flowing curves of the auditorium itself. The modest hall also gains a sense of openness, as well as a certain vivacity, in its red-and-white color scheme. Raked seating on the ground floor is augment by horseshoe-shaped upper decks plus elevated seating behind the stage.

Roses for a happy Riccardo Muti after the CSO's second concert in Aalborg. (Todd Rosenberg)The fact remains that the Musikkens Hus is small, and for a high-powered orchestra like the Chicago Symphony to play at full throttle is to create something closer to sonic fury than music. Muti and company made that discovery in short order when they opened their first program with Hindemith’s Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass – that latter component ringing out more like BRASS!

Such are the perils of touring from one unfamiliar venue to another. Muti was instantly giving palms down to moderate the four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba – serious fire-power that can be exhilarating to hear a big hall, but which threatened to overwhelm this little shoebox. Even dialed back, or perhaps because it had to be, Hindemith’s virtuosic essay didn’t really work.

But fast-forwarding through Elgar’s “In the South” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” both of which made a more rewarding impression, to the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which capped the first concert, you got the meaning of a great orchestra and an expert conductor.

CSO percussionist Cynthia Yeh punctuates Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. (Todd Rosenberg)All the spatial qualifiers simply vanished in an eloquent and nuanced account of “Pictures” that recalled the dazzling performance Muti and the CSO delivered in Paris at the start of this tour. So adeptly had conductor and orchestra adjusted to these new and challenging environs on the fly.

Perhaps even more unexpected than the acoustical issues was the modest turnout to hear one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras and its famous conductor. That was a head-scratcher. But the second night the house scarcely revealed an empty seat. This time, the acoustical mysteries solved, Muti and the band went three for three, all of them out of park.

Make that four, to start at the end with a charged encore of the Overture to Verdi’s opera “Nabucco.” The previous night, for the first time on the tour, a road-weary conductor had skipped the encore on behalf of his well-drained ensemble. But now rested, with that full house on its feet and clapping rhythmically after a scintillating performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a beaming Muti readily struck up his beloved Verdi.

It set the capstone to a concert that began auspiciously in the ruminative spirit of Catalani’s “Contemplazione” and then shifted to the lavish brilliance of Strauss’ “Don Juan.” When the printed program came to an end, it was assuredly not only for the splendorous Tchaikovsky that the audience was cheering, but rather for a perfectly grand night in its lovely little house.

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Aalborg's Musikkens Hus at night: Sharp angles on the outside, curves in the hall. (Todd Rosenberg)