After last season’s extensive survey of works which the Chicago Symphony has premiered, it was only for fitting for another entry in the list to appear early on in the current season. Receiving its world première Thursday night was Five Hallucinations by leading Australian composer Carl Vine, a co-commission with the Sydney Symphony where it is due to be performed next spring. This week brought forth the return of the gifted young American conductor James Gaffigan, who rounded off an eclectic program with works of Franck and Prokofiev.

Michael Mulcahy premieres <i>Five Hallucinations</i> in Chicago © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Michael Mulcahy premieres Five Hallucinations in Chicago
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Vine is certainly a major force in the field of contemporary music, with a catalogue of seven symphonies, ten concertos, and music for film, dance, and theater to his credit. I must admit some bias in confessing that his First Piano Sonata surely ranks among my most cherished works of the past half century or so. Five Hallucinations, a trombone concerto, was written for fellow countryman Michael Mulcahy, CSO trombonist since 1989. It takes inspiration from the book Hallucinations by the late British-American neurologist Oliver Sacks (who, it should be remembered, wrote extensively on music in his landmark Musicophilia) wherein he details case studies of hallucinations, be it from mental illness, brain damage, psychedelic drugs or simply the blurred lines between dreams and reality we have all experienced.

Each of the five interconnected sections depicts one such hallucinogenic experience, and Mulcahy was so invested in the score as to seemingly be experiencing each one. The opening “I smell the unicorn” was characterized by a texture filled with disorienting glissandos, as well as an intriguing dialogue between Mulcahy and principal tuba Gene Pokorny. “The lemonade speaks” was a bit more playful and whimsical with colorful orchestrations involving the harp and glockenspiel. Most striking was the trombone’s wide range, and the limber flexibility Mulcahy had in this athletic writing.

“Mama wants some cookies” wasn’t about mothers or cookies, but the auditory hallucination of hearing such a phrase repeatedly. The trombone served to intone that line while the rest of the orchestra was dominated by a percussive, rhythmic drive. To my mind, the work’s high point came in “The doppelgänger”. No matter how complex Mulcahy’s solo passages were, the orchestra found a way to imitate, as if following in a spectral, ghostly presence, until at last he managed to break free in the movement’s unaccompanied coda. “Hexagons in pink” is concerned with the visual hallucination of hexagonal patterns, the only one of the five which the composer claims to have experienced firsthand. Mulcahy entered with breathless runs of sixteenths before the titular hexagons were suggested by way of triplets and sextuplets. As the movement almost never left 4/4 time, the rhythmic complexity was cleanly negotiated by all leading up to an ecstatic conclusion – by Vine’s admission, this hallucination can indeed be a pleasurable one.

The program opened with Franck’s tone poem Le Chasseur maudit. Once a staple of the CSO’s early decades, it has now largely fallen out of vogue. The five horns opened to suggest the eponymous huntsman and the main melody was presented in the strings with tubular bells adding to the timbre. The work was given a boisterous punch up through the crashing final chord; while it erred dangerously close to superficiality it proved to be an attractive vehicle for Gaffigan’s youthful energy and charisma.

The second half was devoted to selections from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, the first of several upcoming acknowledgements of the composer’s 125th birthday. Although Prokofiev later distilled the ballet into a triptych of orchestral suites, Gaffigan elected to cherrypick his preferred excerpts – fourteen in all, lasting some 45 minutes – in the manner that Riccardo Muti has presented the same composer’s Romeo and Juliet. Somber strings characterized the introduction, perhaps indicative of the troubled times in which the work was written, when fairy tales such as this would have served as a place of refuge. “Shawl Dance” exuded nervous energy and the scintillating clarinet of John Bruce Yeh. Bassoonist William Buchman’s delicate fingerwork was featured prominently in “Dancing Lesson”, along with solo passages from violinist Baird Dodge – filled with double stops and presented in a didactic manner as per the title, occasionally interjected by the excellent James Ross, guest trumpet from the Met Orchestra.

Sumptuous cello lines were the heart of the “Grand Waltz”, while the wood block brought Cinderella and the Prince’s otherwise lovely pas de deux to a halt as temporal concerns killed the mood. Twelve strikes on the tubular bells left little guesswork as to the intended narrative; resolution was to be had however in the surging passions of the concluding “Amoroso”.

***11