When we talk about musical “earworms”, we read between the lines. It’s not a nice word, conjuring up something undesirable, pestilential, even haunting. Hector Berlioz rightly called the amorous theme that animates his “Symphonie Fantastique” an “idee fixe” – less a motive than an obsession, a ghoul.
Attend the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current concert cycle, under the direction of Music Director Riccardo Muti, and you may never take earworms for granted again. Ludwig van Beethoven uses the same motifs over and over again in much of his work, including Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”, his homage to the Austrian countryside. Similarly, when the theme for Jessie Montgomery’s “Hymn for Everyone” came to mind, unprompted, while hiking in the mountains in New Jersey, she said it ended the bouldering. of writers for several months by the CSO’s composer-in-residence.
“Hymn for Everyone” focuses on this simple four-bar theme, a tidy little melodic cell whose initial rising line nods to the 19th century hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It is doubled and transformed around the orchestra until a second theme finally answers it two-thirds of the way through. The effect is not as relentless as an orchestration exercise à la “Bólero”, but it comes close. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and indeed, it’s not Montgomery’s strongest recent work.
But “Hymn for Everyone” is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. Her controlled release of emotion, tactfully administered by Muti on Thursday night, beckons to something much deeper than what shines on her surface. Beneath are deep currents of pain – not shouted, but whispered through unexpected harmonic pinches and rumbling low brass at the end of the track. More than most of Montgomery’s work, “Hymn” evokes her experience in film music, in which she graduated at NYU. The orchestration of “Hymn’s” – particularly its stated, chorale-like string lines – bears whiffs of John Williams’ most famous scores, minus their thorny technique.
That likely did a lot to endear her to Thursday’s audience, who seemed to receive the play with particular warmth when Montgomery took the stage for her bows.
Montgomery co-starred for the evening with CSO principal bassist Alex Hanna, performing the Double Bass Concerto No. 2 in B Minor by Giovanni Boteausini. The outrageously talented Hanna rarely performs solo: he last did so with the full orchestra in 2015, playing Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Double Bass Concerto, and most recently performed “Dark with Excessive Bright”. by former CSO Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli for a streaming performance on CSOtv.
Bootsini pushes the double bass to its limits in this Romantic-era concerto – so much so that Hanna plays it on a smaller, slimmer instrument once owned by conductor Serge Koussevitzky, loaned for these performances.
Hanna adapted well to the dashing bravado of the outward moves, approaching them with the tightly coiled analytical poise of a fencer. But these movements have also reached their limits. Hanna’s intonation could be shaky at key moments, and throughout it was unclear whether he or Muti – keeping the balance of the string ensemble in check, but mostly having fun in terms of rhythm – led the concerto.
The moments when Hanna had room to breathe landed the best. The cadenza of the first movement was strikingly rhapsody, and the second movement was beautifully shaped and juicy with portamento. The smiles heard on the faces of the strings of Muti, Hanna and CSO at the end of the concerto made their corny feint in B major at the end – present in some of the many versions of the Bootsini concerto, chopped in others – almost forgivable . Almost.
Afterwards, it’s back to the great outdoors with the “Pastorale”. Muti practically rocked the score, leading the symphony with the austere reverence one expects in his interpretations of Beethoven. As if to underscore the point, he used his usual podium trick of dropping his arms and letting the orchestra conduct on its own – the winking implication being that Beethoven’s score is so organic, so elemental, that it can flow by itself. But his interpretive erasure has produced mixed results. One such moment without a conductor near the end of the first movement sent the orchestra slightly out of sync, and profligacy gave way to languor in the second and fifth movements, both of which could have used a hand of firmer interpretation.
Unlike Bootsini, Thursday’s “Pastorale” shone the most in its energetic movements. Muti opened the third movement’s “joyful gathering of country folk” delicately, as if hearing a jamming band from afar. As the orchestra moved swiftly from pianissimo to fortissimo, the doors to an imaginary dance hall opened – brilliant, breathtaking and, thankfully, without the cartoonish barbarity of lesser interpretations. Muti and CSO’s transition into the fourth movement was also viscerally chilling, the ominous rumble of the low strings giving way to a dizzying thunder.
It was Montgomery and Hanna’s night, but the CSO Woods joined them as the night’s honorary headliners. Clarinetist Steven Williamson bottled all the rustic goodness of the third movement in his short solo, oboist William Welter’s soft, vulnerable lines were appreciated wherever they appeared, and flautist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson gave at the tenderest moments of the symphony a dreamlike radiance. When all three came together in the second movement’s bird song trio? Pure magic.
Of course, Thursday’s journey through the pastoral was not revealing. There was no road less travelled, with a few twists to cast Beethoven’s Eden in a new light. But sometimes on walks like these, you just need to slow your pace and just admire the view.
8 p.m. Saturday, April 30 and 7:30 p.m. May 2, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $38-$399. For more information, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
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