Review: Michael Tilson Thomas, Orion Weiss, and the CSO Deliver Mozart and Brahms/Schoenberg
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a rousing if edgy performance on Thursday night, when it opened a series of concerts at Symphony Center, billed as MTT Conducts Mozart. MTT refers to Michael Tilson Thomas, who has been a fixture at the podium of the CSO since 1970. Also taking the stage was American pianist Orion Weiss performing Mozart’s magical Piano Concerto No. 23, in A-major, K.488.
For the past two years, MTT has been dealing with an aggressive brain cancer that has required him to back off some of his performances. As Wynne Delacoma reported in CSO’s on-line magazine, MTT considers conducting the CSO a “revitalizing experience.” He actually cancelled other November appearances to rest up for his four concerts here in Chicago.
While Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is specified in the concert’s billing, the program’s second half was actually devoted to an amazing work by Johannes Brahms, but not entirely by him. Arnold Schoenberg transcribed to orchestra one of Brahms’s best pieces of chamber music, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in g-minor, Op. 25.
But the concert opened with some Mozart that the CSO had never previously performed, Six German Dances K.509. I, too, had never before heard this work, and it demonstrated yet again how great Mozart was. Even music that has largely been ignored by posterity can be special.
Performing these dances was a scaled back ensemble, with a normal section of winds and brass and a smaller collection of strings. Needing some help getting on and off the podium, MTT gave it a cheerful feel, even to the dance in a minor key. His hand movements occupied a rather small space, but he commanded everything quite well.
Orion Weiss then joined the show for the Mozart piano concerto. Playing Mozart well requires more subtlety and finesse than most other piano music, and Weiss provided it. From the piano’s entrance in the opening movement, he exhibited a velvety touch and careful attention to evenly produced notes in the melodic runs.
Unlike others, this particular Mozart concerto has a gloomy Adagio middle movement in f-sharp-minor, a key Mozart used nowhere else. Weiss demonstrated excellent intensity and interaction with the orchestra. Here is where the winds really add to the sound.
While everyone played the Mozart concerto well on Thursday night and the performance was enjoyable, there were a few places where the winds and brass overpowered a bit. MTT also took the opening movements a bit slower than usual. The overall effect was rather lackluster. It had more energy than a perfunctory run through, it just didn’t have much oomph.
For an encore, Weiss turned to Claude Debussy’s Étude pour les arpèges composés No. 11, a work that has a similar feel to Debussy’s very famous Claire de Lune. It allowed Weiss to show off more careful expressiveness than he showed even in the Mozart.
After intermission, the program turned to Brahms or, at least, Schoenberg’s transcription to orchestra of Brahms’ first piano quartet. The young Schoenberg was working in Vienna while Brahms was still alive, although it’s unknown if they ever met. Transcribing this work 40 years after Brahms died, Schoenberg used an orchestra that was very much expanded beyond what Brahms himself used. It almost filled the entire stage and required the CSO to bring in additional musicians, Chicago’s Vincent Karamanov on contrabassoon, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Benjamin Freimuth on bass clarinet, and the Lyric Opera’s Susan Warner for the E-flat clarinet.
Part of the joy is in discovering to whom Schoenberg assigned the musical phrases originally written for violin, viola, cello, and piano. He went far beyond simply turning the string parts over to their counterparts in the full orchestra. It made quite an impact to hear oboes, clarinets, horns, and trumpets playing notes that Brahms originally gave to the violin.
And just where do you put the notes originally played by 10 fingers on a piano? Schoenberg masterfully found places for all of them. Given the range of bass notes available to a piano, the orchestra needed virtually every bass instrument known to humans. In addition to contrabassoon and bass clarinet, there was a tuba and lots of string basses, cellos, and regular bassoons. Schoenberg also called on an expanded percussion section. Besides the usual timpani, there were cymbals, a bass drum, triangles, a xylophone, and a glockenspiel.
There was so much going on at once, across the entire stage, it’s a marvel that MTT held it all together. Aside from a couple of instances where things got a bit choppy, it was excellent. Especially interesting were the varied tempos that MTT used in the finale, which Brahms marked presto. The other performances I’ve heard kept it uniformly fast. MTT brought out lots of feelings by slowing certain sections down and allowing the melodies to penetrate.
This concert will be repeated on Friday, December 1, at 1:30 pm, Saturday, December 2, at 7:30 pm, and, unusually for the CSO, Tuesday, December 5, at 7:30. 220 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago. For more information, click here.
On Sunday, December 3, CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery will be hosting MusicNOW in a program entitled, "Montgomery and the Blacknificent 7." It features contemporary music by members of the Black composers' collective known as the Blacknificent 7. At Symphony Center, 4:30 pm. For more information, click here.
A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.