Chicago’s Symphony Center is a lovely place – an intimate enough setting to see one of the greatest symphonies in the world on a normal day. It’s not at all off of normal for the hall to host greats, but even Symphony Center doesn’t get a star like Anne-Sophie Mutter everyday – the German violin diva, widely recognized as one of the greatest players in the world, is touring the globe with her Mutter Virtuosi. As I anticipated the concert I’ve been following Mutter and the crew on the road on Facebook – they’re posting fun updates all along the way, including the photo I’ve included in this post, taken at Carnegie Hall the night before they played Chicago. The Carnegie stop was especially important on the group’s tour – it was the US premier of the great contemporary composer (and ex-husband of Mutter) Andre Previn’s Violin Concerto No.1.
Previn’s Concerto was replaced by a piece by Sebastian Currier as the sole modern work in the performance last night here in Chicago – Ringtone Variations, a 2011 commission of The Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation. The work is dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has a longstanding appreciation for and relationship with the American composer, considered one of the innovative greats working today. The composer means ringtone as most of us do – the little chirps produced by our phones, not the elaborate melodic/musical ones, but simple gestures of sound. His variations are embellishments to the simple sounds. The piece is a duet for violin and double bass, for which Mutter is joined by Virtuosi member Roman Patkolo.
The composer writes that both instruments are well-suited to harmonics, which he incorporates into the piece. While my ear for the modern is not as fine-tuned, the work is challenging and provides some melodic interludes. Still, a ringtone is not a “theme,” per se, and my novice ear would need a little more time with Currier’s piece to be able to tease apart the variations. I very much appreciated the contrast of the low bass with the treble of the violin. I also enjoyed just watching the duo play; the bassist’s techniques were new to my ears/eyes and the pair’s execution of the work was at once emotional and powerful, while retaining a lightheartedness well-suited to the piece’s subject matter.
Mendelssohn’s was the second work up; the classical composer’s Octet is also exactly what it sounds like – a piece for eight strings. Mutter was joined onstage by three violinists, two violas, and two cellos. The octet sat down, which might explain why Anne-Sophie started the performance in a rather casual pants/sweater top, a departure from her trademark full-length strapless gowns. Octet is a joyful, wonderful work with an earwig theme that captivates from its opening bars. There are passages highlighting all the instruments – none of the members goes without her or his moment to shine. But Mutter is the master; she expertly directs from her first chair position, keeping the piece tight and brisk. While the Virtuosi are young, they are graduates of Mutter’s Institute – mid-twenties young professionals getting their start in the performing arts. Obviously, all of the members are immensely talented, but in the performance the second violin, one of the violas, and the cellos especially shine through. I woke up this morning with the strong melody line coursing through my head, a bit of a surprise considering Octet was not the pièce de résistance.
That honor was reserved for strings mega-hit The Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s baroque masterpiece came after intermission, during which Mutter donned a gorgeous pale yellow strapless gown, the same gown pictured above at Carnegie. As we chatted with them during intermission, the people sitting just behind us jokingly bet on just such a costume change – the couple has seen her multiple times and has followed her for many years. The rest of the Virtuosi remained in black, and it was clear as they walked onstage that The Four Seasons would deliver the Anne-Sophie Mutter most people paid to see.
From the unmistakable opening lines of Spring straight through until the final bits of Winter, Mutter delivered an astonishing performance. She really takes control of the piece – different arrangements I’ve heard utilize more or less solo violin versus the ensemble, and I was pleased to hear this arrangement take full advantage of the fact that it was helmed by one of the violin greats of our time. Standing center stage and surrounded by the full ensemble, including a harpsichord, she plays in conversation with the audience, in conversation with her fellow ensemble members, and in total concert with Vivaldi. Her cadenzas rise flawlessly and effortlessly, while her treatment of the beautiful melodies that permeate the work were rapturous. Our standing ovation was rewarded with two encores – a reprisal of the spectacular finale of the well-known first movement of Summer, followed by a slower and beautifully evocative movement from Fall.
I’m thrilled to have been able to see Mutter in this way, both with her Virtuosi and as a master in The Four Seasons. She’s a shining example of putting her fame and fortune to good use – the Virtuosi, her Institute, her support for modern composers – her whole career works to further music appreciation and development for the next generation. It was also a great treat to go on an excursion with Teacher. We had a lovely time, followed by a late-night snack and drinks at a nearby restaurant.
As Teacher and I parted ways, I descended the stairs into the Red Line Subway on State Street, and heard a violin in the distance. Approaching the platform, the street musician’s tune resolved in my ears – he was playing Bach, what Suzuki calls Minuet Three, a piece I learned in Book One and continue to play and enjoy. I was tickled to imagine that so many of us, at all stages of life – from my ten year old friend who introduced me to Teacher, to the Virtuosi, to Yours Truly, to Anne-Sophie Mutter, to the Old Man in the Subway, standing as we do in all strata of society, all sharing a passionate love of this great instrument.
Deep gratitude. Profound Joy.
Thanks for reading.