Lively Schumann, dark Mahler show the Chicago Philharmonic at their classical best

Sun Feb 05, 2023 at 2:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Susan Platts performed Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer Saturday night with the Chicago Philharmonic at North Shore Center in Skokie.

The Chicago Philharmonic has always been an eclectic ensemble, one that performs populist and for-hire events as well as classical programs.

Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting that Saturday night’s outstanding concert of Mahler and Schumann at North Shore Center in Skokie marked the Philharmonic’s final classical event of 2022-23—this at just the halfway point of the current season. 

There are plenty of Philharmonic events coming up, as pitched in noisy promotional videos before the concert: serving as backup band for Tank and the Bangas, Lettuce, Kishi Bashi, and playing the live music score for a screening of The Batman.

One gets that in these fraught times for cultural organizations one has to do whatever is necessary to pay the bills. Still, you have to wonder if these kind of pop events are genuinely broadening the orchestra’s audience or just diluting its identity as a classical ensemble. I’m not sure that many Tank and the Bangas fans are going to attend a Mahler symphony or vice versa.

That said, the program led by music director Scott Speck on Saturday showed what the Philharmonic does best and should be doing more of—smart programs of an array of classical rep performed on a high level by some of the best freelance players in Chicago.

The music of Libby Larsen—like that of most contemporary American composers— is no longer heard very much in Chicago, so good for the Philharmonic in opening the evening with her Deep Summer Music. A timely antidote to the past week’s frigid temperatures, Larsen’s music evokes a languorous summer atmosphere. More dynamic subtlety and gentler playing would have better evoked the solstice essence, but Speck and colleagues largely conveyed the relaxed lyricism and small-town Americana of this music.

It’s rare to hear Mahler song cycles anywhere these days, so kudos to Speck for ambitiously programming Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The title of this four-song cycle is invariably translated as Songs of a Wayfarer but the more accurate (if less poetic) English would be Songs of a Journeyman, which also reflects Mahler’s status in this early work as an itinerant traveling musician.

Soloist Susan Platts proved an ideal Mahler interpreter in every respect. With a dusky but acutely focused mezzo-soprano, she handled the high notes with ease, and her animated expressions communicated the essence of these mostly melancholy settings nearly as much as her refined vocalism.

Platts unerringly conveyed the stark sadness of the opening work,  “When My Love has her Wedding Day.” In “I Walked Across the Field this Morning”—music mined by Mahler for the opening movement of his First Symphony— Platts put across the joyful love of nature, deftly segueing into the less hopeful final stanza. “I have a Gleaming Knife” was aptly jarring and emphatic in its psychic violence. 

Despite two loud, unmuffled sneezing coughs from an audience member in the quiet setting of “The Two Blue Eyes of My Love,” Platts was unruffled. The soloist rendered the final setting with a hushed concentration and transcendent feeling that seemed imbued with the romantic tragedy of this song and indeed the entire cycle. Speck and the Philharmonic were alert and sympathetic partners throughout, the conductor at his best in the last song, bringing the orchestra way down to match Platt’s delicate singing in the fading away of the coda.

This was world-class Mahler singing by any measure. Platts deserved a much better ovation than the tepid applause she received from the audience, which shamefully didn’t bring her back out for a single curtain call.

The evening concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3. As Speck noted in his enthusiastic introduction, the “Rhenish” is one of Schumann’s happiest creations, hailing from the brief, unclouded period when he and Clara arrived in Dusseldorf. That optimism didn’t last long as Schumann—an uneven conductor at best—was soon fired from his podium job and plunged into another bout of black despair.

But the symphony is all vitality and good cheer, and Speck led a lively performance that conveyed those qualities. The opening movement went with fine momentum highlighted by strong horn playing by principal Neil Kimel (husband of the evening’s soloist Platts). The Scherzo, like the Rhine, was flowing and amiable, and the musicians brought apt lyric charm to the middle movement. 

The slow movement was inspired by a church service at Cologne Cathedral that impressed Schumann, and the performance conveyed something of the dark majesty of both the edifice and occasion.

There were a few hectic spots in the finale, including one scary moment where ensemble cohesion threatened to come apart entirely. Speck got the players back on track and drove the spirited music on to its jubilant conclusion.

Posted in Performances

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