The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra Prepare to Dazzle Washington DC

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The words “Chicago” and “Philadelphia” conjure up immediate images across all the human senses. In theater and movies, the musical Chicago and the movie The Philadelphia Story (or maybe Rocky) all instantly create an atmosphere in the mind. In food, there’s Chicago deep-dish pizza and Philly cheesesteaks to alert the senses. In sports there are the recent championships of the Chicago Cubs and, of course, the Philadelphia Eagles – if I’m even allowed to mention that on a Washington-based website.

Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography.
Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography.

The same thing is true in classical music. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra are two of the great world orchestras in a way that the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra aren’t, at least not yet. But they conjure up distinct soundscapes in the minds of global music followers.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is historically famous for the glorious sheen of its string sections. To this day, if you hear of a violinist, violist or cellist who’s made it into the Philadelphia Orchestra, you know that they’ve passed through an extraordinary gauntlet of auditions while conforming their attack and tone for optimum blend rather than individual solo distinction.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is world-renowned for its brass – the tremendous bloom of its trumpets, trombones and French horns. If it’s that extra little kick or thrill that you want at the peak of a Beethoven symphony or Verdi overture or Richard Strauss tone poem, then the Chicago sound is for you. Other orchestras may emphasize a different balance, either out of concern for the lesser volumes of strings and woodwinds or to avoid a perceived anachronism with the way composers might have heard their own works. But the CSO will go for it anyway, and to do so its brass players also run the gauntlet of selectivity, since the tone of an elite vs. lesser trumpet player is so evident in any hall from a concert stage to a Broadway theater.

For all the historic reputations of these two orchestras, though, these are generalizations in an age when conservatories are pouring out enough great players on all instruments to stock every section in both of them many times over. A good test of their current approaches will come when they each visit Washington – the Chicago Symphony in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday night this week and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday, March 6.

The organizer of the concerts, Washington Performing Arts, is making hay over the fact that the CSO is visiting Washington for the first time in nearly 13 years. Headed by Italian conducting legend Riccardo Muti – ironically a past music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well – the Chicago Symphony is really a finely honed instrument overall that adapts itself to the main classical repertoire, new serious art music, and operatic selections.

Longtime CSO bass trombonist Charlie Vernon told me in a recent telephone conversation that one of the things about having exceptional brass players is that it makes it easier for everyone to play. While it seems obvious that musicians in very selective orchestras should find it routine to produce a quality product from their own stands, there really is an analogy with sports in that with better performances around you, you can up your own game with more confidence.

In Washington, the CSO will perform the overture to the opera I vespri siciliani by Giuseppi Verdi and a new work by their composer-in-residence named Samuel Adams, who describes it somewhat obliquely in a video preview on their concert page.

Meanwhile, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 will provide the late Romanticism that will test the balance of the Chicago forces in the sometimes challenging acoustical environment of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. While the second of Brahms’ four full-length symphonies has his signature depth, power, and thickness of sonority, it is also considered the most “pastoral” of the four Brahms symphonies. So how Muti shapes the section sounds and where the brass will be most notable provides a significant challenge. The French horns, typically smack in the middle of the top-to-bottom sound production, may lend an especially expansive but warm backing to this masterwork of the late 19th century under Muti’s baton.

Interestingly, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert in early March will provide a different sort of demonstration of its strings-first reputation and a specific challenge for its charismatic music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Unlike the CSO, the Philadelphia Orchestra typically appears in Washington every year through Washington Performing Arts. And in Washington it has recently performed works that stereotypically let the violins tug at the heartstrings like Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which includes the melody that 1970s crooner Eric Carmen later stole for his hit song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Very different will be the sole announced work on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s March 6 concert, the Symphony No. 7 by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Running an hour and 20 minutes or so in length, the Shostakovich Seventh is basically a war symphony that narrates and commemorates Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the subsequent 900-day-long siege of Leningrad. Or at least Shostakovich adapted a symphonic theme that he had in mind before the war’s outbreak (which may have originally been intended to represent Stalin’s own domestic terror operation) to the conflict at hand.

In any case, parts of the symphony are extremely repetitive in terms of what came to be known as the “Invasion Theme.” The challenge then for the strings, who in some analyses of the symphony are said to be the “Voice of the People” as opposed to the woodwinds and brass who represent more menacing forces, is to make their presence cut through but in a sympathetic way. My bet is on the entire string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra to carry this off, not least because Mr. Nézet-Séguin – who also is due to take over the formal position of music director at the Metropolitan Opera in 2020 – has such incredible hold over the tiniest of adjustments in performance.

“He’s able to convey what he wants through very subtle movements,” long-time Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Bob Cafaro told me in another recent phone conversation. It’s ironic because Mr. Nézet-Séguin is also known for large gestures on the podium, but that’s for the overall structure of the piece, not the measure-by-measure internal changes. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is also known as a people person, which probably keeps his 100-man band highly motivated even through some recent financial and labor disputes that have hit the orchestra.

“If I were given Yo-Yo Ma’s career instead, I would sell it on eBay,” jokes Cafaro, except he isn’t really joking. Probably everyone who has ever studied the violin, viola or cello in the Washington area should be on hand on March 6 to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, along with everyone else who simply wants to hear what these instruments can optimally produce. The fact that this concert will be in the more optimal acoustics of Strathmore will just add to the potential. It should be quite an evening, as usual with the Philadelphians on their annual visit to our area.

Washington Performing Arts presents the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 8 p.m. and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday, March 6, 2018 at 8 p.m. For tickets, and for the complete remaining season schedule of Washington Performing Arts, go online.