The Review from the Benefit Concert: Muti, CSO musicians offer 'bread for the soul' in benefit at reborn Studebaker.
by John von Rhein, June 14, 2016.
Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra set up temporary shop at one of downtown Chicago's most venerable theaters on Monday night to raise money for one of the city's most deserving charities.
The group, which incorporated last year as the Chicago Symphony Musicians, gave its first performance as a self-producing nonprofit organization at the Studebaker Theater, a recently refurbished small concert hall in the historic Fine Arts Building on south Michigan Avenue, as a benefit concert for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Everyone, including CSO music director Riccardo Muti, who conducted, was donating their services.
It was, as Muti observed in his postconcert remarks to the appreciative audience, an occasion "to make bread for the soul." Perhaps alluding to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history over the weekend, he spoke of the essential role played by musicians such as Chicago's as a counterforce for peace and benevolence in a world where terrorist violence has become commonplace.
"When I conduct concerts like this," he said, "I feel that studying music is a great privilege, because you have the sense of bringing people something of great beauty — with a capital B."
The Studebaker itself is a forgotten gem reborn. Built in 1886, the theater once served as a major downtown recital venue, but other halls stole its business, leaving it in disuse and serious disrepair. The renovation is ongoing but what's there is attractive. Freshly painted, with comfortable seating and a new air conditioning system, the "new" Studebaker is pitching itself as a rental facility for local performing arts groups.
Even with tickets priced up to $250, 653 of the hall's 720 seats were sold, according to bassist Stephen Lester, chairman of the CSO members committee. This represents a gratifying vote of confidence in the organization's mission to assist other nonprofits in ways the orchestra's corporate parent, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, is unable to do. Muti expressed his willingness to be a part of further player-driven benefit events helping those in need in the community.
The program was designed for broad popular appeal, drawn largely from repertory the CSO had performed earlier this season that could be quickly freshened. It held Rossini's "William Tell" Overture, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (with CSO principal clarinet Stephen Williamson as soloist) and Beethoven's ubiquitous Symphony No. 5.
Nobody knew beforehand what the acoustics would be like, since there was no opportunity for the musicians to test-drive the sound before their single rehearsal prior to the concert.
While dry, the sound proved to be clear and perfectly adequate for the purposes of the event. Without a shell to push the sound into the house, the brasses — situated at the rear of the deep stage — sounded remote against the rest of the ensemble, even if the strings and woodwinds had both presence and tonal quality. If the musicians decide to return to the Studebaker, someone needs to invest in an acoustical enclosure.
Some of the playing was less polished than one would hear on a good night at Orchestra Hall, but the unfamiliar acoustics no doubt had a lot to do with that.
Muti infused the Rossini overture with idiomatic warmth, and there was fine solo playing from principal players John Sharp, cello; Scott Hostetler, English horn; and Stefan Hoskuldsson, flute.
The Mozart worked better in this intimate environment. Williamson had played the Clarinet Concerto at CSO subscription concerts in February that were to have been directed by Muti but fell instead to Gennady Rozhdestvensky after the music director canceled his winter engagement to recover from surgery.
Monday's performance of the Clarinet Concerto felt more relaxed and genial. The soloist's burnished sound, his ability to articulate rapid passages with great dexterity and dynamic shading, bespoke musicianship of a high order. The finale brought a playful spontaneity that had been lacking in the earlier performance. The accompaniment Muti drew from the orchestra could hardly have been more sensitive.
The maestro's Beethoven Fifth stuck closely to the interpretive model of the performances of this iconic masterpiece he led to kick off the current CSO subscription season. Refined in multiple performances he and the orchestra gave in Asia in January, his interpretation was taut, lean and driving when it needed to be, glowing for the more lyric pages
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