The front of the stage at Symphony Center was cluttered with marimbas, vibraphones, wood slabs, cymbals, crotales, and other gear as Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion opened the Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s concert Sunday night with the world premiere of Meander, Spiral, and Explode by Christopher Cerrone. It was the start of an excellent concert by the training orchestra that backs up the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. If one were to judge an orchestra based on the younger players waiting in the wings, the CSO is obviously top notch. Under the baton of Ken-David Masur, the Civic, as it usually does, delivered a delightful program on Sunday night and displayed proficiency worthy of the big leagues.
Naturally, given the stage set-up demands, the Grammy-Award winning quartet Third Coast Percussion went first. They were backed up by a smaller, 50-piece Civic ensemble that included a piano and a two-person percussion section, which made regular contributions. Christopher Cerrone based Meander, Spiral, and Explode on a book of the same title by Jane Allison. Over the past few years, TCP has premiered several works by Cerrone, who dedicated this new piece to them.
The work’s three movements correspond to the three words in the title. After TCP’s opening outburst on wood slats, Meander starts very quietly on the lower strings and picks up speed as it wanders through the orchestra. Throughout this and the other movements, the strings and winds sound a drone that shifts in volume and tempo, while TCP’s four members switch among wood slats, marimbas, vibraphones, cymbals, bells, and other objects played with mallets and bows. In Spiral, a rising tune emerges on the vibraphones, marimbas, and piano, while the whole thing speeds up. Explode explodes onto the scene with wood blocks and other sounds. During this movement, the violins expand the drone to two notes, as tempo shifts. The work ends abruptly, just as it began. All in all, Meander, Spiral, and Explode had a wonderful effect and impact. It created an aural fabric that was both interesting and vivid.
Following a lengthy set change to remove all of TCP’s equipment and expand the orchestra, the aural fabric theme continued with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, a work from the beginning of the 20th century that stands on the cusp between traditional tonality and modern atonality. In three movements, Debussy captures the feelings one might experience from sailing on, or being close to, the sea. It is an absolutely wonderful work that is really a collection of undulating waves and misty atmospheres that move around the orchestra. It starts out very softly in the lower strings and gradually picks up volume and tempo. Each of the three movements offers different coloration and motion.
The challenge La Mer places on an orchestra is in making melodic shifts that seem to flow from out of nowhere, which is what the Civic Orchestra ably accomplished on Sunday night. In La Mer, sounds move and volumes rise and fall quickly between the orchestra’s sections, as melodies shift back and forth among the strings, horns, woodwinds, harps, trumpets, and trombones. The tunes passed between the sections smoothly. There are also several solo opportunities for violin, cello, various woodwinds, horn, and trumpet. Each soloist contributed seamlessly.
After intermission, the Civic took up Robert Schumann’s symphony no. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38, the Spring symphony. Schumann was one of the Romantic composers to emerge in the first generation after Beethoven. Schumann continued the changes pioneered mainly in Beethoven’s middle period and took things one step further in harmonic development and innovative movement structure within a larger piece. By the time he started writing for the orchestra, Schumann had already expanded the bounds of music for piano, both solo and with vocals. This first symphony exploits the aural fabric that arises from different instrument combinations. Using the sunny key of B-flat major, Schumann captured the pleasant feelings and hope that comes with the seasonal return of warm, sunny weather, especially in the opening movement. He also advanced the make-up of the third movement Scherzo, which had two different middle sections.
Various parts of the Spring symphony offer challenges to the orchestra, which stepped up to the task Sunday night. The slow introduction to the fast opening movement allowed the Civic to show off its dynamic range. The players very effectively reproduced the syncopated notes that create a source of anticipation for things to come. They also faithfully produced the sunny climax after the middle section. The dreamy second movement offers more introspection, and the violins were especially effective playing runs over the quiet chords played by the winds.
Overall, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago left a great impression on Sunday night, showing an ability to perform music of many styles, new and old. It demonstrated that the talent pool of classical musicians in Chicago is deep; the CSO has no shortage of capable people when vacancies arise.