Die fliegende Holländer – Overture
Alternative Energy Symphony [New York premiere]
Symphony in D minor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 4 October, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
In the opening phrases of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s string section asserted its authority with sublime sonic intensity that was matched by the brass. Riccardo Muti drew huge waves of color from the players, whose ever-growing fervor had many shades. The relentlessly dramatic interpretation was the perfect depiction of a Norwegian storm.
The Wagner set the stage for excitement. The following piece, Mason Bates’s Alternative Energy Symphony, not only met the challenge but stole the show. Bates has built a reputation as one of the most accomplished composers of his generation, due in part to his diversity of musical interests. In addition to traditional classical compositional studies, he has worked as a DJ, and his music breaks down traditional stylistic boundaries. Alternative Energy Symphony was written for the CSO. Bates wrote that this work “is an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy – a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant – until it reaches a future Icelandic rain forest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.”
The piece uses an extensive and unusual percussion section as well as electronic sounds and samples, and includes recordings of noise from a particle accelerator transmitted via laptop to several loudspeakers. The execution of such a high-minded concept was a complete success – the work easily engages the listener while also incorporating many layers of complexity.
The initial movement, set on ‘Ford’s Farm, 1896’, is a dialogue between mechanical metallic percussion and a folksy solo fiddler, played here with gusto by concertmaster Robert Chen. Instead of portraying a war between nature and manufacturing, each part is lighthearted and humorous, and the accompaniment features catchy, swinging melodies reminiscent of Aaron Copland. It was impossible not to read a political agenda into the work, about life being happier in olden times. The second movement, ‘Chicago, 2012’, is much darker, with machinery becoming more ominous. The low brass blends with resonant amplified electronics, making the listener feel the music as much as hear it. ‘Xian Jian Province, 2112’ is the symphony’s finest moment. The sounds are innovative and utterly captivating. The tonality becomes uprooted, featuring three piccolos and four flutes in unusual tunings. Glimpses of pentatonic scales eventually orient the listener to place, and an electronic techno-beat provides grounding in time. This part of the symphony strays the farthest from the classical genre, with a thrillingly sinister build up to what Bates describes as “catastrophic meltdown”. In the final movement, ‘Reykjavik, 2222’, nature finally triumphs over the machine. Bird-whistles interact with a fiddle solo, again played by Chen, who modified his timbre to become steely and shrill. Here the electro genre seamlessly merges with the classical, suggesting that the survival of humanity depends on incorporating non-organic elements.
Following such a dramatic first half, it was natural to think of the opening theme of César Franck’s D minor Symphony as a comment on the environmental predicament. Beethoven had used the same motif in his final string quartet (Opus 135), and in his score he inscribed over the notes “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). Franck’s melody-driven symphony allowed the orchestra’s glorious strings to shine, and Muti made the most of huge changes in volume and color within single phrases. The balance was perfect – the brass was passionate without overpowering the strings, and the woodwind solos penetrated yet retained warmth.