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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra arrives at Carnegie Hall with a program that portrays choppy waters and changing tides, opening with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture followed by Debussy's La mer.
A stormy seas metaphor may be tempting for the CSO in these anxious times for the orchestral world — and the orchestra has seen considerable change in its front office. On January 12, the CSO welcomed a new president, Jeff Alexander, who comes from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and succeeds Deborah Rutter. A week earlier, the ensemble announced the appointment of a new VP of artistic planning, Cristina Rocca, to help shape its programming.
But most signs point to smooth waters for the CSO, as a string of multi-million-dollar donations have arrived over the last year, along with reports of record-breaking ticket sales (though increasing budget deficits remain a concern). In early 2014, music director Riccardo Muti, now 73, renewed his contract with the orchestra through 2020.
Against this backdrop comes the orchestra's three-concert series at Carnegie Hall. It begins with this program, which NPR Music and WQXR Radio will broadcast live Friday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. ET, featuring the two ocean-themed works plus Alexander Scriabin's Third Symphony, subtitled "The Divine Poem."
Scriabin has been a something of a specialty of Muti's at least since the late 1980s and early '90s, when he recorded all five of the composer's symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra. One critic at the time noted that the Russian mystic composer "brings out the conductor's unbuttoned side." The lyrical yet complex "Divine Poem," according to Scriabin, "must unite with philosophy and religion in an indivisible whole to form a new gospel."
If that scenario doesn't illuminate the music, it may be best to simply take in the work's extravagant instrumental colors, harmonic eccentricity and grandiose rhetoric. Set in four connected movements, the piece calls for a mammoth orchestra — including eight horns and five trumpets — which should pack a wallop in Carnegie Hall. The CSO is presenting all five of Scriabin's symphonies this season in Chicago.
"While it would be easy to dismiss 'The Divine Poem' as the work of a madman," Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein wrote in October, "it's hard to resist wallowing in its gorgeous orchestral colors and brilliant musical invention."
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor