By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – It is difficult to overstate the pain and destruction wrought by World War I. More than nine million soldiers and seven million civilians died during the four-year conflagration, and millions more suffered all manner of psychic and physical injuries.
Along with scores of other classical-music organizations worldwide, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is marking the centennial of the end of the so-called Great War with a series of concerts and programs spread across the 2018-19 season. Beyond specifically commemorating the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, these offerings, especially those that are part of A Time for Reflection – A Message of Peace, running through Nov. 18, consider more broadly war and peace, hope and remembrance.
A focal point of these commemorative presentations was the Chicago Symphony’s Oct. 18-20 set of concerts (heard Oct. 19) with guest conductor Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. All four works on this rewarding, adventuresome program from the 20th and 21st centuries related directly or indirectly to war, including a biting world premiere that opened the concert by French composer Bruno Mantovani, who was in attendance.
The new work, which was commissioned by the orchestra and ran 17 minutes or so, is titled Threnos. It comes from the same Greek root word for “wailing” as the English “threnody,” which is a song of lamentation. Typically, such works are slow and elegiac, but Mantovani said in an interview for the orchestra’s webpage, Sounds and Stories, that he wanted to create a threnos that was also “fast” and “active.” “That can sound like a contradiction, a paradox,” he said, “but I think paradox is a good thing in music. Paradox is one of the motors of my music.”
The work opens quietly, with drum rolls and barely heard breathy sounds in the brass and woodwinds, and then a buzz-live wave spreads across the orchestra as the tension builds. Then come tittering flutes, scratching strings, surging brass, and all manner of blasts and screeches as the orchestra builds to a cacophonous, almost out-of-control crescendo. Relief finally comes with a slow, mournful motif in the flutes and clarinets, but the break is short-lived, and the clatter soon returns.
The pattern repeats itself, with a lone violin (associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong in top form) joining the clarinet and flute in a later slow moment for an eerie solo with flutters, whines, and odd, lurching slides. Rather than extended phrases, melodic fragments and rat-a-tat effects collide in the predominantly fast sections with Steve Reich-like phasing and an array of other sounds and effects. Undergirding everything is the sometimes louder, sometimes softer but virtually non-stop percussion (a dozen different instruments ranging from bass drum and vibraphone to tom-toms and Chinese cymbals).
Unlike the anger that pierces Shostakovich’s music, the raw emotions here seem to have more to do with loss, hurt, and pain. Mantovani appears less interested in making a point or charting a journey and more concerned with simply plunging listeners into a visceral, disorienting aural swirl. If the destination wasn’t clear, it was impossible to deny that Threnos was by any measure a thrilling if bleak ride.
As Alsop’s 25-year tenure as music director of California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (she stepped down in 2016) makes clear, new music has played a central role in her career and that was abundantly evident in Threnos. She was in total control from start to finish, shaping an intense, incisive interpretation that heightened this work’s dark emotions and brought a sense of order to its disparate cross-currents.
While much of the advance attention on these concerts focused on the world premiere, the program highlight was arguably Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, which debuted in October 1946 – just after end of World War II. Its fourth movement dramatically incorporates the theme from the composer’s beloved Fanfare for the Common Man, which he wrote in response to America’s entry into World War II.
Program annotator Phillip Huscher calls the work “our great American symphony,” and it is hard to disagree. As the first chords sounded in this performance, it felt like coming home. The work’s harmonies, intervals, and other elements are not only distinctly Coplandesque, but they are also unquestionably American. Despite the seemingly obvious appeal of this work, it is surprisingly and disappointingly not performed that often. This was the Chicago Symphony’s first performance since 2007.
Alsop has long been a champion of American music and of this piece in particular, and she no doubt at least helped to nudge it onto the program. The symphony proved to be an ideal showcase for the Chicago Symphony’s first-rate musicians, especially its renowned brass section, which had multiple moments in the spotlight such as the fanfare at the beginning of the second movement. Alsop offered an evocative, authoritative reading of a work she knows very well, rendering both the spaciousness that its sweeping lines demand and the intimacy that its quiet moments require. This was a fresh, vivid performance with tempos that never flagged and a rich sense of its inner pulse.
Providing what proved to be a fitting introduction to the symphony was the orchestra’s first-ever performance of English composer Frank Bridge’s Lament, composed in 1915 as a tribute to a 9-year-old girl who died in the infamous sinking of the Lusitania during World War I at the hands of a German U-boat. Alsop and the orchestra offered a suitably eloquent and moving reading of this concise, uncomplicated five-minute work, seguing from it with hardly any pause into Copland’s Symphony.
Having the most tangential connection to this program’s theme of war and remembrance was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major. While it was partially composed during World War I and completed in 1921, its makes no direct references to the war. That said, it is work with a major connection to the Chicago Symphony, which presented the world premiere on Dec. 16, 1921, with the pianist as soloist. Its often lighter, even witty character provided an ideal complement on the first half to the bitter emotions of Mantovani’s Threnos.
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, winner of the Gramphone’s 2016 artist of the year award, brought a wonderfully idiomatic and spirited interpretation to the concerto, drawing a wide palette of colors from the piano. The first movement had a lively, kinetic feel, with Trifonov nicely voicing the kind of café-music feel at times. The pianist offered a jaunty, even jazzy take on the second movement, a set of five variations on a theme, and nicely shaped the long lines of the slow third movement. He very clearly knew what he wanted in this performance, which was less about virtuosity or showmanship and much more about just making music and reveling in everything the work has to offer. Often leaning around the lid of the piano to watch Trifonov’s hands, Alsop supported him every step of the way.
I served as music critic of the Denver Post for much of Alsop’s tenure as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, so I have been closely following her career for nearly 20 years. While she already showed qualities in that stepping-stone position that would make her an internationally recognized conductor, including musical intelligence and derring-do, Alsop has steadily matured since then. The conductor who led this Chicago Symphony program was more self-assured and in command than ever, delivering a substantive, sure-handed performance at the helm of one of the world’s most important orchestras.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.