Review: Chicago Philharmonic Delivers the Romanticism of Larsen, Mahler, and Schumann

The Chicago Philharmonic is known as “the People’s Orchestra.” They have regaled audiences with a variety of classical, jazz, gospel contemporary, and the music of young composers from their Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence Program. They are a diverse group of musicians that evolved from the Lyric opera orchestra and have grown into an international success. The program on February 4th at The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts was an evening dedicated to music from and inspired by the era of Romanticism in Europe. German composers Gustav Mahler and Robert Schumann were highlights of an evening that opened with American composer Libby Larsen. It was a night of music that evoked the elements of earth and water.

Chicago Philharmonic. Courtesy of Chicago Philharmonic.

Libby Larsen’s Deep Summer Music is a composition that evoked a rainy day in a greenhouse for me. It was fresh with light phrasing and evoked the colors of summer. Larsen is known for composing songs that evoke the earth and those who explored the elements. Her one-act opera Every Man Jack is about Jack London who wrote about exploration and being exposed to the elements. In Deep Summer Music, the xylophone and harp create notes that sound like water drops. This is a verdant composition that was done beautifully under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Speck.

Maestro Speck gave an introduction to each piece and described how they were all connected to an earth theme. Upon introducing Songs of a Wayfarer, he delved into the emotional life of Mahler after a love affair has ended. Mahler was primarily known as a conductor and did not compose as much as one would think. His music has become a mainstay of moody and dark soundtracks such as Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) and, of course, there was the Ken Russell movie Mahler (1974). Mahler ended Songs of a Wayfarer with the hero laying under a linden tree waiting to become one with the earth

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts came to the stage to sing Songs of a Wayfarer. Living in the Evanston area with her husband Neil Kimel, who is the principal horn player for the Chicago Philharmonic, Platts is internationally famous as an interpreter of Mahler. She delivered a stellar performance of a piece that embodies Mahler’s themes of grief.

Mahler’s song cycle takes the listener through a journey similar to the stages of grief in five parts. The last song, The Two Blue Eyes of My Love is one of acceptance of all sorrows comforted by the beauty of the earth. The sweeping passages in Wayfarer are familiar because they include the foundation of what is considered Mahler’s greatest composition-Symphony Number 1.

Mahler greatly admired Richard Wagner- in spite of Wagner’s antisemitism. Mahler emulated Wagner and some of the passages in Songs of a Wayfarer sound quite familiar to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Mahler was also influenced by Robert Schumann–another great composer of the Romantic era. Schumann’s Symphony Number 3 is also known as Rhenish in reference to the river Rhine. Symphony Number 3 is in five movements rather than the traditional four.

Once again, Maestro Speck gave a short talk on the music and the almost violent similarity to Beethoven with the use of B flat Major. Maestro also mentioned that Schumann was probably bipolar and some of this symphony was written in a manic phase. The fourth movement is dedicated to the Cologne Cathedral and veers more toward the intricacies of the Baroque era when the Gothic cathedral was built. The fifth movement was the most evident of that influence with notes that were jagged and dramatic. It was a dramatic and mesmerizing climax to the evening.

It was a lovely evening of music that took inspiration from the beauty of the earth and reflected the intricacies of the Romantic era. It was an era that featured philosophers Goethe and Schopenhauer. The tenuous balance of love, beauty, and loss.

I would recommend that the Chicago Philharmonic be added to your cultural calendar. They will be branching out into neo-soul, and contemporary composers, ending with a concert performance of The Batman (2022). For more information please visit

Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.

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