When last I saw Anne-Sophie Mutter at Symphony Center, it was with her Virtuosi – they premiered a work by Sebastian Currier and treated the audience to a brilliant interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Last night’s concert at Symphony Center also featured the great German violinist – this time as part of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s opening weekend.
As if my raging fandom for Anne-Sophie Mutter weren’t enough, the program promised my favorite work for my instrument: The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I discovered the staple early in my quest to expand my classical music horizons, and I’ve listened to it countless times. I’ve watched video renditions by youngsters and legends, and enjoy the story of its composition and slow adoption into the standard violin repertoire. I often walk around with one of its many prominent themes coursing through my head.
Seeing the Tchaikovsky performed live was like a dream. As Mutter walked out in her trademark sleeveless gown – yellow again, as it was when I saw her perform Vivaldi – the audience held its breath. The work’s opening theme emerged quietly from the orchestra’s violins only to be quickly snatched away by the soloist. The ensuing whirlwind of the first movement, through its famous cadenza and its intra-concerto finale were just too much for some – a smattering of patrons stood in ovation at the movement’s end.
It was not only the passion Mutter devoted to the evocative second movement that made it far more than a placeholder – the movement beats like a heart in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, conveying the complex wonder of his personal moment. 1878 found the great Russian breaking from a ridiculous marriage and depression, taking up residence in the Swiss countryside with a talented young violinist and – dare I say – muse. Wikipedia reports the composer’s original second movement disappeared in favor of one composed with the eager assistance of the young man – Iosef Kotek.
The passionate second segues into the virtuosity of the third seamlessly, heralded by a pizzicato strum that I always find thrilling, followed by a sprint toward the finish: allegro vivacissimo. The recurring themes in the third movement are the notes that linger in the ears long after the performance. Delightfully, it’s in the third movement that the concerto is at its most Russian – pure Tchaikovsky. Hints of the sugar plum fairies and other ideas abound.
In truth, many possess the chops to eek out the notes of this concerto, which the great Leopold Auer is rumored to have declared “unplayable” when it was first introduced. But last night the colors emanating from Mutter’s instrument ensnared me throughout – her deft manipulation of her Stradivarius with this most challenging of works as her subject matter created violin art that knows few equals.
The rest of the concert highlighted Muti and the CSO. First up on the evening’s program was the the 1974 Penderecki composition The Awakening of Jacob, notable for its inclusion in the film The Shining. The work is a challenge for me to fully appreciate outside of cinematic context, but pondering the dynamics and the sincerity with which the CSO approached its atonal dissonance helped me up another rung on the ladder of my appreciation for modern composition.
Then came Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Tchaikovsky and a Bach Partita encore, followed by an intermission.
The last half of the night brought Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, which the CSO and conductor Ricardo Muti filled up with life. The expansive first movement is followed by a finger-defying scherzo highlighting the orchestra’s violins. The somber third movement features plaintive oboes and other woodwinds, and the symphony’s final movement reaches its climax with horns and timpani – a triumphant and stoic finale for the CSO’s opening weekend repertoire.
Toward the end of the intermission that followed Mutter’s concerto, Michael and I were walking back to our seats on the main floor and we quite literally nearly ran into her – she had changed into an elegant black ensemble and was headed upstairs, carrying her own violin in a whimsical but unassuming case. Then, a few minutes into the second half, we noticed up over our shoulders that she was doing exactly what we were doing – enjoying one of the world’s great orchestras playing Schumann from her own box seat.
Thanks for reading.