On Thursday, May 27, 2021, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in brass and percussion ensemble, conducted by Michael Mulcahy and accompanied by guest brass and piano musicians, made a triumphant return to Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago. The concert, entitled Fanfare, was to be repeated through Sunday, May 30. Two more programs will follow, closing the 20-21 season, and ushering in the season at the Ravinia Festival, in Highland Park, Il., its long-time summer home.
Of course, the house was not packed to capacity; the seats were carefully staggered and marked, as part of the “Safe and Sound” protections the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association worked out in consultation with physicians from Rush University Medical Center, U. Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon, and approved by the Chicago Department of Public Health.
It was an hours’ program pitch-perfect in curation, execution, and most notable for the deep sense of joy that permeated the Hall. A central, pervasive feeling was mentioned by CSOA President Jeff Alexander in his words of introductory welcome, and echoed by philanthropist Helen Zell, representing the sponsoring Zell Family Foundation, and by trombonist/Director of CSO Brass Mulcahy: music needs to be heard live! A primal symbiotic give and take relationship exists between musicians and audience, as they produce and experience the ineffable in the form of music.
This night the 5 selections performed seemed all of a piece, flowing into and out from each other, with elements of the staccato, atonality, and more than a little jazz-infused. Opening with Aaron Copland’s beloved Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942, crafted as part of a group request for works to serve as “significant contributions to the (WWII) war effort”, it has been described as a song “that rouses, unites, celebrates and calls to action”. Short in duration (under 4 minutes) but immense in its ability to evoke emotion, it begins with an announcement of exciting percussion, followed by a dramatic succession of simple trumpet notes, it’s been used at historic events- like this one!- to honor presidents, to wake-up astronauts.
Next on the bill was Gunther Schuller’s 18-minute Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op. 16, (1949-50), comprised of 4 essentially different movements unified by a jazzy sensibility and a swelling sense of excitement and affirmation.
Mutations from Bach, 6 minutes, compiled and arranged by Samuel Barber in 1967 for brass ensemble and timpani, is an elegiac “sequence of transformations” of an antique plain-song, concluding with a restatement of the original version of the chorale.
Perhaps the highlight of the concert- and the longest work in duration at 19 minutes- was Michael Tilson Thomas’ arresting Street Song, composed in 3 mellifluous, “continuous” parts, described by Tilson Thomas as “an interweaving of 3 songs”. The first song seems erratic, stopping, starting and stopping again; it’s subtly interspersed, however, with soft, smooth notes. The second tune has a more joyful folksong effect, while the third is a dance-form; at the end, they quietly resolve and coalesce.
The final work of the program was Presto Barbero, from On The Waterfront by Leonard Bernstein, 1954, arranged by Frank Erickson, 1965, closing the concert- as it began- with an arresting, thrilling 4-minute piece which received wide popular and critical acclaim.
In affectionate encore, Mulcahy led the musicians in an early and charming version of “Happy Birthday”, written by trombonist/composer Timothy Higgins. Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti, born in Naples July 28, 1941, will be 80 this summer.
The audience gave standing ovations before the concert and after each offering. There was a visceral sense of satisfied happiness from the moment one entered Symphony Center; a real affection was apparent between all those in attendance, on and off the stage.
All photos by Anne Ryan