Civic Orchestra does Brahms like he’s meant to be done

By Anne Lovering Rounds

According to my music-theorist informant, by the time orchestral players nab positions with a big-name ensemble, they ought to have memorized the orchestral works of the following composers: 1) Mozart, 2) Beethoven, and 3) Brahms.

Brahms only wrote four symphonies, and Beethoven only wrote nine, but Mozart wrote 41–which is an awful lot. But the comment of this music theorist, a pianist and violinist in his own right, was only half flippant. In fact, it makes all too much sense: a name-brand performance of a famous, grandiose, pull-out-all-the-stops symphonic work, like Brahms’ fourth symphony, often feels like a recording, a recitation from memory. The appropriately emotional dynamics are programmed in all the right places, the players sound like they’ve been doing this since birth, and there are no wrong notes, ever. In fact, listening to a recording might even be better, since no one would answer a cell phone (with the unfortunate ring tone of a fugue by Bach) between the movements, and you could check your inbox for important e-mails from the University Registrar at the same time.

When the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performed Brahms’ E minor Symphony last Monday night at Symphony Hall, it didn’t sound like a recording. These performers are young (the concertmaster, Jessica Hung, is a high school senior at the U of C Laboratory Schools), and so was the audience, at least compared to the normal aging and ague-ridden crowd typical of such concerts. As the so-called training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra rehearses with Daniel Barenboim as well as the resident conductors of the CSO. On Monday, however, guest maestro Roberto Abbado took the stage to conduct the program of Busoni and Berio, as well as Brahms. And though these musicians are a training orchestra in name, in reality, they are no backup group. The program was ambitious, and the orchestra successfully met the challenge with the poise of professionals.

The opening piece, a brief, unabashedly emotional poem typical of Busoni, set a dramatic and cerebral mood for the rest of the evening. “We’re not joking, here, folks; we take ourselves, and this music, very seriously,” the orchestra seemed to say by starting the night with Busoni–a composer better known to nerdy, self-torturing pianists than to fans of orchestral repertoire. The orchestra did well in capturing the Busonian austerity, the quality which emerges in his original compositions much more often than in his piano transcriptions of Bach and Liszt. The duets with the celeste, played with the violin, the viola, and the flute, were subtle without losing their tension. The percussionist hung suspended over the side of the gong, attentive until the final sound in the piece had died away. One of the cellists was almost carried away by her own stage presence, swaying back and forth distractingly with the rocking gestures of the music. Overall, though, the orchestra brought necessary melodrama and unusual sagacity to a piece that deals explicitly with death.

Luciano Berio’s Requies is no less morbid, moody, or erudite. Abbado and the orchestra engaged the audience’s intellect as well as its ears, as they presented a Requies that contradicted its own title, Latin for “May you rest.” The orchestra shuddered and whirred; whole groups of pitches slid by, nearly disintegrating. This was no peaceful end, but a contorted expression of grief. It was just as wrenching as Busoni’s forthright elegy, and perhaps more skillfully orchestrated. As young as they were, the players brought off the effects that reminded the listeners, in ways appropriate to the then-current Holy Week, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

These two pieces, however, pale in comparison to the great creature of a symphony which is Brahms’ Fourth. From beginning to end, the Civic’s rendering of the symphony was aflame. The strings in the opening measures of first movement sounded like one voice, and this first movement alone was enough to make the person beside me remark, in a tone of deep satisfaction, “Ahhh. Can I go home now?” Abbado’s tempi were perfect; the first movement never lagged, the operative word in andante moderato, the marking for the second, was moderato; the third was giocoso without rushing. Abbado was not conducting from memory, as I’m sure superstar Daniel Barenboim would have, but his score hardly hindered his movement at the podium or his clear, energetic direction of the orchestra, which responded with equal energy.

This is not to say there were no unprofessional moments. The timpanist bordered on overpowering, and the triangle trills in the third movement were disappointingly sloppy, although the rhythmic triangle measures were always precise. But as the orchestra headed into the final measures, the crescendi didn’t feel contrived, and the passion and the force in the fourth movement were real: the players weren’t just going through the motions, as it sometimes seems the CSO does. And although the orchestra’s hard work was evident in its polished rendition of the Brahms, the performance also had the excitement of a first reading, the tingle of a spontaneous, yet somehow magically mistake-free, musically profound, sight-read. If players can sound like this when they don’t have a piece memorized, I hope they never commit it to memory.

After the concert, as I stood sipping mineral water and munching on an eclaire at the VIP reception, enjoying my press status fully, watching Maestro Abbado socialize multi-lingually in a manner as graceful and flirtatious as his conducting, I wondered how many of these kids would go on to play in the CSO itself. Of course, it’s a delusion to think that an orchestra of this caliber happens casually, that a bunch of college and graduate students get together once a week for a few hours and suddenly produce fabulous Brahms. To the non-music world, or even to the large world of decently musical 20-somethings, these musicians are already professional.