Review: Chicago Philharmonic Delights With World Premiere and Sunset Serenades

Composer-in-Residence Jonathan Bingham with conductor Scott Speck. Photo credit: Ryan Bennett.

Chicago Philharmonic staged the world premiere of composer Jonathan Bingham’s short symphonic piece, titled Tautology, last Sunday. His composition was placed on a program between works by Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvořák, two of classical music’s brightest lights. Yet the 32-year-old Bingham was unfazed, taking the stage at Skokie’s North Shore Center for Performing Arts and coolly explaining how the theme of the piece is connected to its title. 

A tautology is a pairing of words that mean the same thing; an example Bingham used is “frozen ice.” He puts that concept into musical form, with the cello and bass sections introducing an eight-measure phrase, which is repeated by other sections in succession with embellishments suited to each of the individual sections. The nine-minute piece is divided into two sections with a finale quoting the sections simultaneously. 

While many young composers write in the Modernist vein, with its dissonances and abstractions, Bingham’s melodic works pay tribute to the traditions of classical music. His instrumentation for Tautology was a small ensemble that excluded violins and gave the violas a moment in the spotlight—intentionally modeled after the evening’s first piece, Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16. 

Bingham is one of three Black artists who are Composers-in-Residence under a new Chicago Philharmonic program named for Donna Milanovich, the orchestra’s recently retired executive director.

Photo credit: Ryan Bennett.

In an interview for an upcoming article about the Chicago Philharmonic’s dedication to promoting diversity, artistic director and principal conductor Scott Speck said he had much time to reflect on his own priorities during the pandemic-related downtime last year. “I was thinking what I want to do in this lifetime is to have more of a social purpose…,” Speck said.

Chicago Philharmonic has an unusually democratic decision-making process in which the musicians play a leadership role, and the shared determination for more social impact provided the impetus for the Composer-in-Residence program. “We’re really going to put our money where our mouth is and sponsor three composers of color for three years, which is a huge undertaking. What we’re committing to do is play music by each of these composers all three years, and in many of the cases to commission world premieres [like Tautology].”

Brahms and Dvořák were young composers themselves when they wrote the other works on Sunday’s program. Brahms is one of the “Three Bs” of German classical music (the others are Bach and Beethoven), noted for the serious and profound symphonies he wrote later in his career. But to most of the world, the name Brahms is most associated with his Lullaby. His Serenade No. 2 is in that lighter vein.  

Though the 3rd movement is a moving Adagio non troppo that hints at his later work, the rest of the unusual five-movement structure is lively and airy, with an Allegro moderato 1st movement, two dance movements (the Scherzo 2nd and Quasi minuetto 4th) sandwiching the Adagio, and a romping Rondo finale. 

As he became established as one of the greats, Brahms is said to have been very hard to please by younger composers, but he was immensely impressed by Dvořák’s presentation during an 1874 competition. Becoming Dvořák’s mentor, Brahms was able to help advance his career. The program notes tell of Brahms recommending the Serenade for Winds, Op. 44, to a violin virtuoso friend, stating, “I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!” This appeared to be the case in Skokie on Sunday. In remarks preceding the performance, Speck described it as “the most fun 11 people can have on a stage together.”

The 37-year old Dvořák scored this Serenade for an ensemble of just 11 instruments, seven of them winds (including a rarely played contrabassoon), with only a bass and cello for strings and two french horns for brass. Few classical conductors in history have done more than Dvořák to elevate the native music of their homelands, and from the very first notes, the resonance of Czech folk music is obvious. This is a brisk and entertaining piece throughout.

Photo credit: Ryan Bennett.

As is regularly the case with Chicago Philharmonic concerts, the musicianship was first class and in sync under Speck’s lively conducting style. Unlike most orchestras, which employ a stable and large contingent of performers, Chicago Philharmonic is a collaboration of about 200 musicians in the talent-rich Chicago region. This provides a great deal of flexibility in programming as it allows the orchestra to choose the performers whose strengths best suit each individual piece. 

Chicago Philharmonic’s next concert is Joyeux Noel, with a mini-ensemble of three instruments (viola, harp and flute) and a program not of holiday standards but rather classical works fitting the seasonal mood by four composers, with Maurice Ravel the best known among them. The concert takes place on Sunday, December 12, 12 p.m., at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St. In the West Loop. Tickets, $25 for adults and $10 for children/students, can be purchased by clicking here. 

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Bob Benenson
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.

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