Chicago Symphony Orchestra – The Tempest and Mahler 4

On a slightly chilly, but beautiful April 24 afternoon, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Concertmaster Robert Chen, and conducted by Maestro Riccardo Muti, gave one of its quintessential performances of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic fantasia The Tempest, his Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, along with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major with Italian soprano Rosa Feola. Scott Hostetler played the English horn, Jennifer Gunn, on piccolo, Miles Maner on contrabassoon, John Bruce Yeh on E-Flat clarinet, J. Lawrie Bloom on bass clarinet and Charles Vernon on bass trombone. Principals included: Baird Dodge (violin); Charles Pikler (viola); John Sharp (cello); Alexander Hanna (bass); Sarah Bullen (harp); Richard Graef (Assistant Principal, flute); Michael Henoch (Assistant Principal, oboe); Stephen Williamson (clarinet); Keith Buncke (bassoon); Daniel Gingrich (horn); Christopher Martin (trumpet); Jay Friedman (trombone); Gene Pokorny (tuba); David Herbert (timpani) and Cynthia Yeh (percussion).

As the audience streamed in, the intermittent chatter was increasingly overwhelmed by a solemnity that expressed an eager anticipation of the performance, but more so (it seemed) in expectation of Muti’s entrance. In his autobiography, Muti alludes to the importance of the forma mentis on the interpretation of the music score, the interconnectivity of music and words, and to his formative years when he began to discover—even in the simplest compositions—the almost sacred marriage between accuracy and playing with “absolute moral devotion.” The audience certainly experienced this devotion in the dramatic texture of Sunday’s performance, in its emulation of a natural sensuousness in the context of musical image-making—where (in Sidney’s words) “all virtues, vices, and passions so in their own natural seats” enthralled our ears that we seemed clearly to envision them in a “rich tapestry” of feeling.

The performance began with The Tempest’s calm sea. In the soft titillating sensations of the wind instruments, the epic echoes of the brass and the rich undulating movements of the strings, one envisioned a natural harmony of both air and sea, but with a faint and eerie prescience that subconsciously restrained us from fully embracing Nature’s peace. Texturally, it was reminiscent of the beauty of those “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” of “the thousand twangling instruments” which gently “hum about [our] ears,” but also of a secret haunting that blazons in a savage, chaotic storm evident in the strings’ sudden cyclonic power, the horns’ trepidations, the loud crashing cymbals and the timpani’s rumbling crescendo. Between woodwinds and strings, winds repeatedly answered waves diminishing into a sudden halt as the divine nature of the storm is emphasized. The halting silence gave way to lyrical music that introduced Miranda and Ferdinand’s love, conveying a romance that proved bold enough to face strenuous opposition. It is a romance that blossoms, holds and outlasts the “storm” of life as we eventually return to the musical theme of the calm sea and the journey home.

Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was mesmerizing! Its inspiration for many composers speaks to the musical content of the play-text itself, for even Berlioz exclaimed, “Mon dieu, what a subject! Everything in it seems designed for music.” This is not surprising considering the puns (in the play-text) on “consort,” “note,” “case” and “crochet,” the play on musical names of minstrels like “Simon Catling” and “Hugh Rebec,” along with the singing of mournful songs and the performance of instrumental music. Though based on Shakespeare’s play, the idea of a “fantasy” speaks to Tchaikovsky’s own musical innovations on the play-text that move us to feel without words. The symphonic poem opened with a chorale-like introduction to the good friar Laurence with a presentiment of doom hovering in the lower strings. Nerves sat ceremoniously, already knowing what to expect, and alert to “the gray-eyed morn” that “smiles on the frowning night, / Check’ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light.” For all its foreboding one could still feel a sense of beauty in pain and “many virtues excellent” with the fluttering sounds of the harp amid the mellifluous tones of the orchestra. However, with an agitative minor chord alternating between strings and woodwinds, we were suddenly carried off into the streets—in media res—to face the fighting Capulets and Montagues whose thrashing swords eventually confronted us in the quick tempo of crashing cymbals. The audience could feel Maestro Muti’s emotional investment in his regulated but forceful body motions, his tempered forward lunges, his vibrato-like fists, and his swaying arms. Following an impressive climax, the violence fades into the love theme, incorporating the smooth legato lines of the English horn and violas, and emulating “a bounty as boundless as the sea,” and a “love as deep.”

We thus moved from deep love to the heavenly pastoral in Mahler’s Symphony 4 in G major. In an interview, Maestro Muti says of Mahler’s music: “Mahler always brings a kind of deep pain even in the moments where his music seems to be full of serenity or joy.” Though Mahler’s symphony is unrelated to Shakespeare, it is, I believe, in this sense of “painful joy” that we find its link to the emotions expressed in the first two musical renditions. This is the kind of poignant joy that was sensed in Rosa Feola’s magnificent performance of Das Himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life). Feola’s smooth bell-like voice fused beautifully with the orchestra, bodying-forth the peace of an angelic and bountiful world that leaves behind a life of weeping.

I feel very fortunate to have experienced a sample of Maestro Muti’s devotion.

Cherrie Gottsleben is a doctoral student of early modern British literature at Northern Illinois University, where she is also undertaking undergraduate studies in French. Her areas of interest include Shakespearean politics of identity, John Milton, and the religio-political pamphlet wars of seventeenth-century Britain. Her interests in theory focus on the thought of Michel de Certeau, René Girard, Michel Foucault and Tzvetan Todorov. She holds an MA in English from Northeastern Illinois University.