2-buck Civic plays nice with Salonen

Orchestra Hall was brimming with an enthusiastic audience Monday night to see Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Civic Orchestra, a paid training orchestra under the wing of the CSO. The "free" concert still required tickets, incurring a 2-dollar handling fee, but the minimal cost was greatly exceeded by the worth of the concert. Because of the low, low price, I invited some non-regulars, who left the concert with a music-induced euphoria, excited about coming back. Each of the pieces, two pieces from Sibelius' Lemminkäinen Suite and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, were easily listenable on a first hearing but with enough depth to merit a number of rehearings.

I was most interested to see the Scriabin live--ecstasy is a guilty pleasure--but was pleasantly surprised by the pair of Sibelius works that opened the concert: the first and last of the four tone poems from the Lemminkäinen Suite. Each piece unfurled like a tapestry of forgotten lore, telling the story of the heroic Lemminkäinen as he seduces women in the first and returns from epic battle in the last. Salonen opened the first poem with a graceful ictus ballet, drawing invisible arabesques in the air; nevertheless, aside from a timid opening note in the horns, the orchestra entered confidently and played perfectly together. The first piece, Lemmy and the maidens, gave the upper strings a chance to sing, which they did with such lyricism I could almost hear words. And I can never hear the words--even when people are singing. 
The Poem of Ecstasy gave Salonen even more opportunity for rubato, acting as a metaphor of the eternal push and pull of the universe as it breaths in divine unison with the creator-god: played, in this case, by Scriabin himself. His narcissism can be seen both in the music and in its accompanying poem of the same name, in which Scriabin tries to depict the supernatural joy he feels in the act of (pro)creation, the act of making love to existence itself.
The score calls for 8 horns. Yes, 8. And on stage Monday night, there were 9. Pretty sure; I counted 3 times. And that's in addition to the 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba. There were two harps, 8 double reeds, 8 flutes/clarinets, and your usual late-Romantic assortment of percussion, including a church bell. The sheer volume of the orchestra would be enough to assuage the deepest existential angst. While it worked wonders on my angst, it fell short of inducing orgiastic bliss. I couldn't tell if Scriabin or Salonen was primarily to blame, but each build to climax came up just short and then lost momentum in a anti-climactic pause. The orchestra, on the whole, especially the strings and trumpets, continued to sound great.
In comparison to the dozens or hundreds of dollars that the CSO costs, the 2-dollar handling fee seems ludicrously paltry. My newly initiated friends asked me what could possibly be that much better about the "real cso", one of the big 3 orchestras in America. Certainly, the CSO is more polished, even more in tune, and more precise, though it's probably not obvious to the casual concert-goer--nor even noticeable. The strings were in tune throughout the whole concert, but there's a brilliance that the CSO can achieve when they play even more perfectly in tune and the frequencies multiply. And the brass was good, but it's no CSO brass. It's a totally unfair comparison, but through such comparisons we appreciate the incredibly high level achieved by the CSO, giving the audience insight into what it takes to be a musician, and giving the musicians models to which to aspire.
For the level, for the cost, the concert was a resounding success. There is no other way, that I know of, to see such quality orchestral music, played by serious up-and-coming musicians, for such little money. This means you have to expect a lot of first-timers; cell phones went off behind me (the same one twice, and I swear he was about to answer it), and Esa-Pekka had to shush eager clappers between the 2 Sibelius pieces. So if you're not a regular, you'll be in good company. The audience was also much more excited and vocal with their approval--very supportive. So, I am going to strongly suggest that my friends--and especially my piano students--attend the next concert on April 11. The friends I took on Monday keep telling me how much they enjoyed it. Seriously, guys, I get it.

Filed under: Civic, free and cheap, review

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