During his prefatory remarks before last night’s concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder, best known for his association with Britain’s Hallé Orchestra, tried to communicate to the audience the difficulties of playing and listening to Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2, a piece by the early-twentieth century American composer that had not been performed by the CSO in 30 years. Its complexity, Elder argued, was due to Ives’s integration of well-known American melodies into the symphonic form of, say, Brahms or Beethoven. The result is a five-movement symphony which, despite the fact that the work was never performed publicly during Ives’s lifetime, and its sporadic (a generous term) inclusion in the repertoire, is an exceptionally compelling work; if it daunted the CSO, it was not evident in Thursday night’s performance.
The symphony integrates a number of American tunes, particularly of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though many of these songs and marches have passed into oblivion, or at least semi-obscurity (full confession: I was unable to identify most of them,) but the orchestration of American folk melodies gives the symphony a distinctly “American classical” sound, characteristic of Ives’s work, as well as, say, Copland, or Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Elder’s presentation of the Ives symphony was a fairly straightforward one, with the usual display of power by the brass, particularly in the rousing conclusion, which features the military march “Colossus of Columbia,” played standing for dramatic effect by the trombones whom, as Elder insisted in his description of the final movement’s climax, “always win.” It’s easier to win, of course, if the playing field has been tipped in your favor, and Elder, whose passion for the work was evident, was all too happy to put the trombones in a “winning” position.
The tone of the concert shifted dramatically when its focus turned to the rarefied air of the Piano Concerto No. 23 by Mozart, featuring Richard Goode as soloist. Goode’s performance was a highly disappointing one which did not do justice to this masterwork. He stumbled right out of the gate, flubbing the opening notes of his first solo, unfortunately only the beginning of his struggles. Goode seemed to show a great deal of discomfort with the piece, and his performance was equivalent to a car driving over an icy road, never really gaining any control and hoping that everything would go smoothly, which, except for a few, fleeting moments in the piece’s famed Adagio movement, it did not.
Goode seemed to get some control in the finale of the piece, but by then, the performance was mostly lost, not due however to the playing of the small orchestra used for the concerto, whose transition to the Classical-era piece from the American-infused work of Ives was miraculous, the strings singing Mozart’s incomparable melodies at Elder’s slightly fast tempos. Goode’s standing as a virtuoso of the highest order is indisputable; for instance, his recordings of Beethoven’s complete sonatas in the early 1990’s were greeted with near-universal praise, which by itself indicates that this performer is an exceptional artist. His troubles in Chicago Thursday night merely shows that virtuosos can have off-nights too.
The concert, which went in the reverse order of the standard symphony concert, concluded with Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspigel’s Merry Pranks, perhaps (though by no means indisputably) the best of Strauss’s marvelous orchestral tone poems. As is the standard for Chicago, the brass were the stars, particularly in a solo of all the horns, precisely delivered as the rest of the orchestra goes mute that was so beautifully modulated, I wanted to applaud them right in the middle of the piece. The brass was by no means the only stars; exceptional contributions were made by concertmaster Robert Chen on violin, principal flute Mahtieu Dufour (whose contributions in every concert are so exceptional, it’s unnecessarily repetitive to praise him every time;) and clarinetist John Yeh, who, going for broke with his solo, turned his E-flat clarinet outward, a la Sidney Bechet. It’s unlikely you could hear a better performance of this work, which was premiered in the United States by the CSO in 1895.