Classically Trained: Chicago Symphony makes stop in Costa Mesa

February 23, 2012|By Bradley Zint
  • Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which made its first stop in Orange County in 25 years on Friday. The famed orchestra played in Costa Mesa's Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, with a program that included old and new works.
Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,… (TODD ROSENBERG )

It was the kind of concert that you walked in thinking about, underwent intermission thinking about and left thinking about, too.

That's because the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's single-night, stop-on-the-tour performance Feb. 17 in Costa Mesa wasn't the kind expected. You know, the kind where the master ensemble freshly reproduces an old favorite for all to enjoy yet again — an admirable practice, albeit a common one.

Instead we were treated to the dusting off of the uncommon — César Franck's Symphony in D minor and Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231" — and a new experience altogether, Mason Bates' "Alternative Energy."

It was, like the name of Bates' new opus suggests, alternative. And very thought-provoking.

Things began in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall with Dean Corey, president and executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, speaking about how Chicago was here. Finally.

Before Feb. 17, it had been 25 years since the much-lauded orchestra from the Windy City had been in O.C.


The Chicago Symphony came on Corey's birthday, no less. On that Friday he turned 65 and was greeted with a four-tiered cake, happy singing and merry playing from the orchestra.

Then came the show.

Led by Riccardo Muti, the renowned Italian conductor who's been leading Chicago since September 2010, things began with "Pacific 231." The most menacing piece with its mechanistic influences was nicely executed — brassy, rhythmic and driving — though what came next was even better.

"Alternative Energy" has four movements: "Ford's Farm, 1896"; "Chicago, 2012"; "Xinjiang Province, 2112"; and "Reykjavik, 2222." The composer dubs it an "energy symphony."

There is energy aplenty in the work, notably in the form of fiddle-playing in "Ford's Farm" played by concertmaster Robert Chen, though he was sometimes hard to hear. There was car cranks by percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who also drummed on something resembling — to me, at least — a car bumper.

With all the synchronized electronic thumps that whirled about, the rainforest ambient sounds and a few other surprises, I found it to be one of those pieces of music that appeals to the gut, not the heart. It's an intellectual exercise, not an exercise of emotion.

Still, I liked it.

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