Commissioning new works is something every ensemble of certain renown is nolens volens doing today. But bringing recently commissioned works on tour takes the confidence in these compositions to a totally different level. After presenting, the night before, the Low Brass Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, a much more experienced composer, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, introduced the Saturday night Carnegie Hall public to a work by Samuel Adams who is a current CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence and has just a few orchestral works bearing his signature.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

many words of love takes its title from a verse in Wilhelm Müller’s poem Der Lindenbaum, famously set to music by Schubert in his Winterreise cycle. The poem talks about a man passing by a linden tree, haunted by reminiscences of a day when he carved in its bark many words of love: “Ich schnitt in seine Rinde/ so manches liebe Wort”. Adams’ intention was, according to interviews when the work had its première in Chicago, to bring a 21st-century connotation to the Romantic verse. It’s not just about the passing of youth and love, but it is “a pretty incredible allegory for what’s happening to the environment. What I’m trying to do sonically is amplify the sound of Schubert’s Wanderer inscribing many words of love into the tree,” he has declared.

The shriek opening the score might refer to acts of violence against nature while the expression of grief in the middle third of the work might invoke the original Schubertian thoughts. Not that Schubert’s simple, four bars melody was easily recognizable in Adams’ score. The composer used digital technology to transfigure it in myriad ways. The orchestral writing itself employed the full arsenal of contemporary composition techniques from modified pitches to timbral shifts. On top of everything, Adams utilized electronic effects, creating a hybrid between natural and artificial sounds by attaching small speakers to two snare drums and thus obtaining an overall atmospheric, rustling like buzz.

Samuel Adams joins Riccardo Muti and the CSO © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Samuel Adams joins Riccardo Muti and the CSO
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

With his trademark Olympian calm and utmost dedication, Muti helped the players navigate the tricky waters of a complicated score. Masterfully handling compositional complexities, some barely discernable on a first audition, doesn’t make an opus successful per se. many words of love appeared to be contrived, somehow directionless and incapable of conveying sufficient emotion despite all the good intentions.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Muti brought a Verdian quality to Brahms’ Second Symphony, the composer's most serene. In the middle parts especially, he added a certain Italian volatility and declamatory grandeur, compensating the imbued melancholy of the music. It wasn’t a rushed performance, the conductor displaying his acclaimed attention for details. Acting Principal Horn Daniel Gingrich acquitted himself marvelously in the challenging legatos in the first two movements. The cellos played with a deep, warm sound. Dialogues between strings and woodwinds were very well calibrated, as they were during the uncharacteristic encore, the Intermezzo (Entr’acte no. 3) from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde, interpreted with wonderful dolcezza. Here, the benefits of having a long-lasting relationship between conductor and orchestra – Riccardo Muti’s contract has been recently extended through 2022 – became clear once again.

[Update: the original version of this review contained a seriously erroneous paragraph on the subject of the Verdi overture which opened this concert, which has been removed. Our apologies for this error.]

****1