A breath of fresh air blows through Orchestra Hall these days. The Chicago Symphony is playing a wide variety of music now, with scores of composers showing up who were underrepresented late in the Barenboim era. David Robertson conducted John Adams's Harmonielehre last night in the orchestra's (inexplicably late) first performances of it; Riccardo Muti led Prokofiev's Third Symphony a few weeks ago; I could go on. I'll be the first to defend Daniel Barenboim's focus on the Austro-Germanic symphonic repertoire, and I will go to the mattresses in favor of the contemporary composers he and Pierre Boulez champion, with the ways those composers embrace modernity or find striking ways of reflecting that tradition. But the viewpoints guest conductors are bringing to the hall today are creating an even more vibrant picture of orchestral music than existed before.
Harmonielehre ended the program, taking up all the post-intermission space. Robertson kicks off those throttling E minor chords at the opening like shotgun blasts rather than cannonade salvos , at a fast tempo. (He brought that movement in almost a minute faster than Simon Rattle did on his 1994 recording.) It took a moment for the strings to come into focus, a problem relatively quickly remedied. Where Robertson really excelled was clarifying details, clearly etching the chattering woodwinds in the transition before the big cello melody, and making way for the great juggernaut that closes the first movement.
The second movement (subtitled "The Anfortas Wound") was also exctraordinarily clean, and seemed to unfold effortlessly. The grand build-up to the climax, an allusion to Mahler's blindingly dissonant 9-note chord in the Tenth Symphony, complete with screaming trumpets above, culminated in a searing, chest-crushing sound. I imagine that death by the bends feels something like this. Chris Martin sailed through the high, soft trumpet solo, oscillating around a high G like a gymnast on a trapeze.
Tootling piccolos started the finale (the smiling "Meister Eckhart and Quackie"). By the end, we were in E flat, Robertson kept the energy at the front of the beat, surging forward. The greatest music sounds as if it couldn't have been written at any other time, and this busy, defiant, joyous, delirious work, with its searching, questing core of a second movement, is a sonic picture of the mid-'80s. If we ever thought we needed an American "Eroica," this is it.
Robertson introduced the work, explaining the subtitles, the Schoenberg connection, and all that. But he really proved just how democratic he is after the first movement. A clutch of people applauded (who wouldn't?), and Robertson turned and smiled, then faced the orchestra. Then he turned around again, and said, "I talked to the composer on the phone, and he said he likes applause at the end of the first movement."
Now, Harmonielehre is not Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, and, contrary to the reports, Riccardo Muti did not upbraid the audience that applauded between the third and final movements of the Tchaikovsky when he led it here some weeks ago. His point was that there exists a unity in the work, and that audiences should think about that, and not react exclusively to the surface thrills of a loud work played by a large orchestra. Muti wished to draw the audience deeper into the experience. In his own way, I think Robertson did the same thing last night, creating a clean slate for the second movement lament.
The concert's first half featured Branford Marsalis playing Debussy's Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Copland's Clarinet Concerto, transcribed for soprano saxophone. Richard Stoltzman puts an entire world into the Concerto's first two, descending notes; Marsalis simply played them. His burry saxophone sound put a different spin on the normally elegant concerto, a change that didn't gratify the work or the instrument.
The Debussy was played attacca following the Sicilienne from FaurÃ©'s Pelleas and Melisande. You could see your reflection in the FaurÃ©, with Robertson creating a surface as smooth as a newly cleaned mirror. I was in New York when Robertson conducted Debussy's Jeux with the St. Louis Symphony, and I wish I had gone. I can't even remember what it was that I saw, instead.