Skip to main content

Berlin Philharmonic returns to Chicago at last

Perhaps you’ll take it as an admission of naiveté if I begin this review with a confession: Until this week, I’ve never heard the Berlin Philharmonic live.

And yet. I couldn’t possibly begin an account of the celebrated orchestra’s U.S. tour stop in Chicago, its first here since 2009, with anything but the honest truth. Love letters aren’t worth the paper you write them on if you don’t pour your heart out.

As a child of streaming — an art the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall has down pat — I know the musicians of the Berlin Phil the same way some know far-off film stars. I once considered applying to Carnegie Mellon University in hopes of taking violin lessons from Noah Bendix-Balgley, the first American named a Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster. For a time, I cycled through oboist Albrecht Mayer’s discography on repeat, stupefied by his chameleon sound. And, like many, I was introduced to, then awed by, Kirill Petrenko when he was named chief conductor designate of the Philharmonic. His 2012 performance of Alexander Scriabin’s “Poème de l’extase” with that orchestra still moves me to tears.

Breathless narratives like these tend to trail the Berlin Philharmonic wherever they go. Unsurprisingly, they played to a packed Orchestra Hall on Wednesday night — and would have handily filled it all over again, had the venue been able to host them for two nights, as are some of the Philharmonic’s tour stops. That meant missing out on an intriguing program of Andrew Norman’s “Unstuck,” Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F-Sharp Major, and Mozart’s first violin concerto, performed by Bendix-Balgley.

What we got instead, in Gustav Mahler’s shadowy Symphony No. 7, scattered all coulda-woulda’s to the wind. The Philharmonic opened its season with Mahler’s massive, five-movement symphony and has already played it thrice on tour. The Mahler heard here this week, however, was all wide-eyed wonder, an odyssey of continual discovery and endless joys. Under Petrenko’s baton, these superhuman musicians embraced what it means to be human — a humanity that was naked, gutsy, complicated, and completely sublime.

As ever, most orchestras could learn a thing or 20 from the Berliners’ sense of ensemble. They move together; they breathe together. Tutti rests often sound practically percussive, a punctuation mark after a soliloquy. They sing together, even in their silence.

Not for a moment, however, does that unity become self-effacing. Berlin is one of the few orchestras that attract celebrity soloists to their principal seats, and they don’t let you forget it. This constellation of personalities glittered dazzlingly on Wednesday, starting with trombonist Jesper Busk Sørensen, who played the opening tenor horn solo with crackling warmth. The teeming opening to the first Nachtmusik movement, always a thrill, became fantastically immersive in the hands of the Berlin woodwinds, as if woodland creatures, then the forest itself, stirred awake. Guillaume Jehl’s glossy, seamless trumpet seemed to survey the orchestra from an untroubled height wherever it sounded. And principal viola Amihai Grosz is an aural lightning rod, caressing lines that otherwise bob by in the symphony’s current.

Even more compelling than these moments of shapely musicianship were the times the orchestra committed to ugliness — guttural horn grunts, shrieking glissandi, sul ponticello snarls. This Mahler was less a symphony than a pantomime of human relationships. Musical notation became a starting point, never an end.

Who would have guessed this most venerable — and in many ways, most traditional — of orchestras could inspire in listeners a new and even radical understanding of what an orchestra can be? It gives one hope for our old boys Stateside.

Yes, Wednesday was an ensemble master class for all who witnessed it. But likely just as, if not more scrutinized was the slight figure on the podium: Petrenko, who is touring the U.S. with the orchestra for the first time. He’s conducted the CSO just once before, in an all-Russian program in 2012, which the Tribune praised as “sen(ding) the needle off the symphonic Richter scale.”

So, imagine hearing Petrenko a decade later, beside the musicians that have become his artistic soulmates. Maybe they are so because he never for a moment asks them to sublimate themselves. They brought every cell of themselves to Wednesday’s Mahler. Somehow, that multiplicity was the very key to their unity.

After all, Petrenko and the Philharmonic know that Mahler is usually expressing at least two emotions at any given time. That’s why there was boyish buoyancy in the martial first movement, and an undercurrent of grief in the wacky Scherzo, as grotesque as anything Hieronymus Bosch ever painted.

Chief conductor Kirill Petrenko leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Symphony Center in Chicago.

Such are the heights scalable when one approaches Mahler not as an intoxicant but a dialect. Rather than surf every expressive wave in the score to its crest, for 75 minutes, Petrenko wove a fresh path through the stormy Seventh. Sections I’d previously given little thought were heralded as majestic arrivals, as if winding a nondescript trail to a breathtaking, unexpected vista. I left a believer.

Occasionally, we heard the messiness of the evening’s humanity, the moments that weren’t in the itinerary — a second movement that took a few measures to settle, an errant cellphone just before the third movement. Petrenko navigated all with uncommon grace and good humor.

One of these stands out. In his fourth-movement solo, evening concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto overshot his opening octave — an uncharacteristic and shocking stumble that briefly unnerved not just Kashimoto but some of his first-desk string colleagues. Those moments churn any musician’s stomach. Petrenko, meanwhile, appeared studiously unfazed.

When it came time for bows, Kashimoto self-deprecatingly waved his applause toward Petrenko. Petrenko twice acknowledged the audience from the podium, bashful as usual. When he made his way offstage, however, he did something unusual, something I’ve never seen a conductor do. As he passed Kashimoto’s stand, Petrenko reached out and squeezed the concertmaster’s free hand for as long as he could without breaking his stride.

The Berlin Phil isn’t everything I dreamed they’d be. They’re much more.

The Berlin Philharmonic, on tour, next plays Norman, Korngold, and Mozart 8 p.m. Nov. 18 and reprises Mahler 7 8:30 p.m. Nov. 19, both at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor, Michigan; $55-156 at

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains editorial control over assignments and content.

Source link

Leave a Reply