I bought a ticket last week for the first program by Muti and the CSO; I bought the ticket so late because I wanted to make sure it was okay for me to be off by myself on Valentine's Day (it was) and because I'd spent an awful lot of time rolling my eyes and muttering "Could he have brought weirder programming?" to myself, over and over. I'm not a big fan of the Schubert "Great" C Major symphony, which is loooong and sprawling and hard to get right; something about the length makes conductors think it's Brahms when it's not. And last night's program's big piece was the Franck symphony, which made a friend who knows it roll his eyes.
I made the mistake of taking the dead-center row F ticket. Too damn close, and not because of the vaunted CSO brass. Too damn close for the noisiness of Mason Bates's Alternative Energy, the big work on the first half of the program, and the noisiness of Honneger's Pacific 231. The latter is an entertaining novelty, fun to hear, cute, nicely written, well-played.
As for the Bates: sigh. He has a great ear for catchy rhythms, for catchy riffs, for working a faux-folk/faux-Bartok Big Tune into a larger orchestral context, for the telling (and often extremely beautiful) orchestral sonority. He makes great use of percussion; there were so many percussion instruments on stage that the program merely stated "extremely large percussion battery." Yes, the recorded sounds from FermiLab were entertaining.
The program notes missed out on one important point about this piece. Movements one and two, and movements three and four, flow into each other, so that it presents as two movements of two sections each. From comments I heard around me, I'm not the only person who was slightly confused by this.
But getting back to the sigh. Alternative Energy is about 25 minutes long, and, alas, really should be about half that length. There is not much in the way of development, just riffing. And the riffing isn't interesting enough to sustain the piece for that long.
Okay, from the standing ovation accorded work and composer, and the remarks I heard around me, apparently most of the audience felt differently. Me, I sat there applauding politely.
What to say about the Franck? It is a somewhat odd piece, called a symphony, but not structured classically; it is more like three symphonic fantasies connected by common base material. It sounded familiar enough that I know I must have heard it in the past, but goodness knows when. It's not as though my music history teachers would have assigned it, and Franck is not high on my list of composers to investigate. The second movement, which more or less successfully functions as both slow movement and scherzo, is extremely beautiful and features a gorgeous English horn solo....that sounds as though it was lifted from one of the Schumann symphonies.
And what to say about Muti & the CSO? Well, that's one great orchestra. They sounded fantastic, with exceptionally beautiful lower string sound; they played with precision and discipline. I could not get much of a sense of what the solo winds are like, with the exception of the principal English horn, who is fabulous.I am not convinced that the brass section is better than that of, say, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra..or the San Francisco Symphony. Concertmaster Robert Chen sounded great in the violin solos of Alternative Energy.
I have no quarrels with what Muti did technically or musically with any of the work; tempos were just, balances excellent; he brought out the inner voices of all of the pieces beautifully; the giant orchestra never sounded muddy in the Bates. But I can't get much of a handle on what sort of interpreter he is from those works - and because of the oddness of the program, I went home feeling vaguely dissatisfied and wanting to play some Beethoven or Schumann for myself.