Review: Chicago Philharmonic, From Trombone to Tchaikovsky



I will never look at the trombone the same way again.

The Chicago Philharmonic may be the newer and smaller-scale cousin to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but its performance at its October 6 concert at Pick-Staiger Hall on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston underscored just how much classical music talent there is in this world-class metropolis. The Philharmonic is the official orchestra of the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet.

There was something old and familiar (Tchaikovsky’s 6th and final symphony, Pathétique, performed beautifully), something new-ish (Masquerade, a short 2013 piece by English composer Anna Clyne), and something very new (Young Voices, an opening fanfare by 19-year-old Harrison Collins, an Illinois State University student who won the Chicago Phil’s first ever Fanfare Competition).

Yet it is the extremely rare featured appearance of the trombone just prior to intermission that stuck as the afternoon’s truly unique moment in a piece from 1837 by an associate of Felix Mendelssohn. Ferdinand David wrote his Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra, op. 4, to fulfill a promise made to a trombonist who performed for a German orchestra. It is not unusual for the trombone to take center stage at a jazz concert, but very rare for an intricate orchestral piece, where the violin, or woodwinds or flutes typically shine.

Jeremy Moeller, the troupe’s principal trombonist, had the chops to pull off a beautiful performance of the three-movement Concertino. Along with his work with the Chicago Philharmonic, Moeller has been Principal Trombone for the Lyric Opera of Chicago for 10 years, and he performs with the Grant Park Orchestra during its outdoor summer season in Millennium Park. The piece was a surprise standout for an audience that likely was drawn by Tchaikovsky.

This does not diminish the fine work on Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Symphony No. 6 in b-minor, op. 74. An evocation of Tchaikovsky’s merging of upwelling emotion and bombast, the Pathétique symphony is a profound reflection on life and loss. He conducted its premiere in St. Petersburg just eight days before he died at age 53. While it was considered likely that he died from drinking unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, the somber tones and air of definitive resignation has sustained an unsubstantiated theory that he died at his own hand and that the Pathétique was created as a suicide note.

The symphony utilizes mournful bassoon and clarinet and descending scales, even during its livelier passages, to suggest a struggle to remain hopeful in the face of failure. Its structure is also highly unusual. Most slow movements in classical music are found in the middle movements, with the final movement building to a crescendo that thrills the audience. But Tchaikovsky, after setting the tone in the first movement, presented a waltz-like dance in 5/4 time in the second, and a powerful march in the third that sounds so much like the climax that conductor Scott Speck gave the audience permission to applaud before the fourth and final movement.

But that finale is in sharp contrast, a downbeat adagio lamentoso evoking grief and hopelessness. The larger strings play the final notes as the piece fades to black. Speck added a final note of drama by standing silently for a minute after the final note, as though mourning a loss.

The powerful but bleak classic was in contrast to the fanfare that opened the concert. Collins, who has won numerous composition competitions at a tender age, wrote the piece to celebrate the rising voices of young Americans amid the unsettled political climate of our times. Accented by brass and a bass drum beat, the piece evoked Copland; Collins, during an intermission conversation, said Copland was indeed an influence.


Harrison Collins onstage after the Chicago Philharmonic performed his Young Voices fanfare.

An aside about the aesthetics is due. Pick-Staiger is beautifully located by Lake Michigan, its south windows providing an outstanding view of the Chicago skyline about 10 miles away. Bushes of purple Michelmas daisies outside the front entrance were alive with monarch butterflies and bees. And the auditorium is tiny but orchestral standards, providing nearly all in the audience with the feeling of practically sitting on-stage.

Upcoming Chicago Philharmonic concerts include a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on Sunday, November 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, and a holiday-themed concert featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio on Sunday, December 8 at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.