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Chicago Symphony opens an East Coast tour with bravura Brahms at the Kennedy Center

Submitted by on Feb 8, 2018 – 4:13 pm

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti, in concert Feb. 7 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With his familiar wave to a raucous audience signaling that Elvis was leaving the building, conductor Riccardo Muti ended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 7 – without an encore, a rarity on CSO tour concerts.

But on this night there was nothing left to say musically. Surely all possible expectations of a well-filled house had been satisfied by a poetic and finely contoured performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony.

Backstage, amid greetings from a throng of well-wishers, which included a group of CSO patrons accompanying the orchestra at least on its first tour stops at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall in New York, Muti was aglow. “They are sounding good, yes?” he asked and answered in the same breath.

Proof positive that practice makes perfect: The concert, presented by Washington Performing Arts, marked Muti’s 350th performance with the Chicago Symphony. It was also the umpteenth time conductor and orchestra had played the Brahms Second together, on tour or at home at Symphony Center.

That noted, what was perhaps most remarkable about this performance was its freshness, its amalgam of precision, expansiveness and grace together with a pervasive serenity that caught the Second Symphony’s bucolic essence.

If it was a stellar night for the Chicago Symphony, it was also a great night for Washingtonians. In comments from the stage before the concert, Jenny Bilfield, president of Washington Performing Arts, said the organization’s patrons had been clamoring for five years to hear Muti and the CSO at the Kennedy Center.

The concert hall at the Kennedy Center, which opened in 1971, is a shoebox shaped venue that seats 2,465. Its sound is warm, detailed and enveloping – reminiscent of the famed Musikverein in Vienna.

That the Chicago Symphony had arrived “sounding good” was immediately evident in the stormy drama and arching lyric lines of Verdi’s Overture to “I vespri siciliana.” Yet that was really just a tune-up for a probing and thoroughly rewarding performance of Sam Adams’ “many words of love,” which was commissioned and premiered by the CSO and will be heard again at Carnegie Hall.

Along with Elizbeth Ogonek, Adams holds the title of Mead Composer in Residence with the CSO. He was present at the Kennedy Center to share in a generous ovation with Muti and the orchestra.

The 20-minute “many words of love” is something of a spiritual tone poem. Its title comes from a textual phrase in Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum” from the song-cycle “Die Winterreise.” The piece itself elaborates the notes of that phrase.

It is a brilliantly imaginative, rigorous and virtuosic essay for orchestra, forged from a fragment and hovering at the edges of tonality. Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” is a plausible antecedent, but “many words of love” also brings to mind the cellular construction and fine craftsmanship of a work like Sibelius’ “En Saga.” Adams’ elegant and absorbing music, in other words, renews the tradition of tone poem in a highly personal and distinctively modernist way.

The work is now well into the fingers and mental muscles of the Chicago Symphony, which gave it a lustrous performance here. Muti treated Adams’ challenging music with the same sensibility for inner voicing and lyric line that he brings to Brahms.

After their New York concerts Feb. 9 and 10, Muti and the orchestra head down the Eastern seaboard for stops in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Florida.

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