Extraordinary performance by Chicago Symphony launches La Jolla Music Society 2017-18 season

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Schubert, Mozart and Schumann in Copley Symphony Hall on Wednesday evening, presented by La Jolla Music Society. Joan and Irwin Jacobs, whose generosity sparked the creation of the Jacobs Music Center and the ongoing success of our own San Diego Symphony, were in the audience to receive well-earned applause for sponsoring this concert. Jacobs celebrated his birthday Wednesday, and what better gift could there have been than this concert, played to a sold-out house, its upper levels packed with participants in LJMS’ Education Program, students of all ages with teachers and parents.

Full disclosure: I lived in Chicago for 19 years. I was just 30, working at the Ravinia Festival — the CSO’s summer home in Highland Park, Ill. — when I watched and heard the CSO’s current music director, Riccardo Muti, make his American conducting debut in 1974. I will always be in love with this great orchestra with its unique sound, and its quintessentially American temperament.


What makes the CSO “great”? What is so “quintessentially American” about its temperament?

Start with the program: Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, a concert hall standard we all think we know; Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, shot through with sunshine, its second movement contemplation made tangible in sound; and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, alternately tortured and triumphant.

Three masterworks, one of them two centuries-plus old, sounded as new as yesterday because the orchestra brought its American virtues to them: players whose individual technical skills are meshed like a Lamborghini’s gears into a superb engine that can whisper nearly below audibility, and roar with refinement that never pushes impact into coarseness; an alert, relaxed concentration that left no musical line smudged, and finally (in this incomplete list) restraint that held so much power in reserve that the music felt unconstrained by gravity, as if suspended just off the floor.

The serene trust between Muti and his players revealed another aspect of the orchestra’s personality. In 1974, he was made of lightning, igniting the orchestra by sheer elemental force. Forty-three years later, he is no longer a thunderbolt but a vessel, opening himself to the music and players, channeling their concentration and energy. Every phrase — whether melody or counterpoint, prominent or hidden in the musical fabric — had a clear beginning and ending, as if the music were weaving itself out of nothing.

CSO Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson may or may not play jazz in his spare time, but both the first and last movements of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto had swing to spare. Williamson kept the orchestra on its toes by pushing the tempo slightly from time to time. He allowed no trace of self-display to mar his playing. Register breaks were invisible, the sound seamless top to bottom — virtuosity that brought the entire audience to held-breath stillness in that sublime slow movement.

Schumann laid his heart bare in his second Symphony. The CSO added American forthrightness and muscularity to his deep feeling, a galvanizing combination that brought the hall to its feet at the last notes.

Neurocognitive scientist and philosopher Steven Pinker says that music plays a “useless” role in human evolution. Nonsense, I say. Music played like this changes us, makes us better. More important, it points us to the world outside the concert hall, urges us to be engaged, to make a contribution.

The rest of the LJMS season will be challenged to match it.

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