My Return to Symphony Center

The Chicago Symphony’s covid hiatus felt interminable.  But a couple of weeks back, fifteen months after my last visit, I triumphantly walked the three blocks to Symphony Center for one of the three-weekends-only live and in-person productions the CSO decided to mount indoors before decamping for their annual Ravinia residency.  The run-up announcements requested we season ticket-holders (who got first dibs) to choose one of the programs, versus buying tickets for all three weekends.  The three programs were remarkably different and I assumed it would be hard for me to choose, but happily, one was called “Strum” and featured the orchestra’s strings, rendering the decision effortless.  They sold about 400 tickets (in a 4,500 seat venue) – as the lights went down and seated in one of the best seats in the house I must say it felt a little bit like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did all of this for little old me.

The program was magnificent – Erina Yashima, a dynamic young conductor, led the musicians in a people-pleasing progression of eminently approachable yet sophisticated work.  The show opened with two single-movement Novelettes by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, about whom I was totally ignorant (despite, as an old English major, long loving his namesake’s Ancient Rhyme).  The composer was a true pioneer – a British Black man operating at the height of the musical world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was apparently received as royalty as his musical career transported him to Teddy Roosevelt’s America.  The Novelettes are lovely – a perfect selection on which to warm up the audience and the Symphony.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was up next – I was duly impressed that they managed to squeeze a whole symphony into a program that was only 60 minutes in length.  It’s a beautiful work, and according to the program, one of the first he composed “for money.”  While Schubert died young, so “early work” is relative, he composed this one at the tender age of 19.

The program’s titular piece, Strum, is a work by CSO Mead Composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, a talented youngish (39) composer and violinist.  This piece was originally created for a string quintet in the early 2000s and can be arranged for a variety of string ensembles, including, on this occasion, one of the world’s best – the CSO strings section.  Concertmaster Robert Chen was in great form as the lead on this fun, percussive piece featuring plenty of pizzicato and, of course, strumming.  The program notes cite Montgomery herself, “Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”  Cellos were featured especially well; they were the original composition’s most dominant instrument.

Ending on a high note, the CSO chose famed Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly’s approachable and melodic yet dramatic Dances of Galanta.  As they slowly built to a dizzying finale, the distanced CSO literally filled the stage and ultimately the huge hall with the sweet joy we’ve been deprived of for far too long.  Standing in ovation, having not done so in ages – in a near empty hall – was a little bit magical.  I cannot wait to go back.  Unfortunately it will have to wait until next season. 

Last year I had great tickets to what would have been, for me, the concert of a lifetime – CSO does Beethoven 9 under Muti’s baton.  I hoped against hope they would schedule it again after the covid cancellation.  And indeed, they have.  I’ll buy the best tickets I can the moment they are released.

Thanks for reading,

Ryan

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