Dean Corey was excited. And rightly so. The Artistic Director for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County was not only celebrating his birthday but was also welcoming the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Riccardo Muti to the Segerstrom Concert Hall stage for the first time on their first tour of California in over 20 years. The appearance was a long time in the making, and after hearing one of the world’s great orchestras with one of the world’s great conductors live up to those accolades, I was glad that Corey and his crew persevered in making this particular appearance happen. Say what you will about the music on the program, the orchestra played spectacularly with the kind of sound other ensembles would give anything to emulate. The brass, of course, are legendary. But I just couldn’t get over how polished the strings were overall. The combination of big, bright sound and real precision doesn’t always come together in such a package, but for the Chicago players they live comfortably side-by-side. And while Muti has his detractors, I must say every chance I’ve had to hear him conduct has left me awestruck with the fluidity of his phrasing and ability to command sublime, propulsive performances without any rough edges.
The evening’s program was an unusual one, full of machines and the future. It started out with Honegger’s Pacific 231, a tone poem evoking the power of a steam locomotive. Honneger uses several rhythmic elements to suggest the acceleration and movement of steel. The CSO provided the energy, and you could feel the engine burst to life in the short introduction. This was paired with a new CSO commission from their Composer-in-Residence, Mason Bates. He was certainly one lucky guy to have these particular forces amassed to show off his new work, Alternative Energy. The four movement symphony, which is divided into two parts, doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition. Each movement refers to a different place and time where human technology has taken a leap forward. That two of these four segments take place in the imagined future is a bold and risky move throwing the material into the realm of science fiction. The first movement looks at the harnessing of combustion engines by Ford for use in automobiles in the late 19th Century. Bright lyrical lines in the strings swirl around the crank of a car's gear shaft - a motif that will be repeated at times throughout the whole work. It’s not a bad idea, but one that sounded a lot like a John Williams movie score to my ear.
Next on the energy tour were recorded sounds from the Fermilab particle collider in Chicago placed over contemporary orchestra fare. All of this was rather loud, and the sounds of the collider were indeed fascinating, evoking both speed and high energy. The last two movements invoked an imagined Chinese nuclear reactor some 100 year down the line and eventually a finale set in "an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet" far beyond that. Again recorded elements peppered the score in an intriguing way. The real problems with Alternative Energy was how derivative some of the orchestral music was. Just as the opening movement suggested Coplandesque Americana, the nuclear plant segment was filled with chimes and Hollywood-style Chinoiserie. And if you didn’t see Bjork coming at you by the time the Avatar-like last movement rolled onto the stage, you hadn’t been paying attention.
The evening wrapped up with another unusual piece at least for most contemporary orchestral programs, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. And while there is nothing technological or mechanical about this work in particular, Muti kept the energetic, propulsive feel high throughout its three movements. It was an enthralling, beautifully paced and intricately shaped performance putting Franck's symphony in the best possible light. But this is the kind of thing the CSO does every day. The other program on this tour which includes works form Schubert and a new commission from composer Anna Clyne will also be presented in Southern California on Sunday courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society. And at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, the great American orchestras will keep on coming with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop on March 28, the Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst on April 17, the Los Angeles Philharmonic on April 28, and the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert on May 8th yet to come.