Performance Thursday, October 4, 2012 | 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Parisian audiences didn’t take to Franck’s Symphony at its 1889 premiere, but its contagious melodies and breathtaking dramatic sweep have since made it one of classical music’s most treasured works. This program also includes Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture and a new work by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Mason Bates.

The contemporary work on this program is part of My Time, My Music.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

Overture to The Flying Dutchman


Although the United States of Richard Wagner's time was a heyday for home-grown talent and innovationled by figures such as Lincoln, Edison, Twain, and LongfellowAmericans were obsessed with the music of a fiercely Germanic composer and his mythical tales of old-world heroes. Wagner himself wasn't surprised that a country "with no history behind it" would be receptive to his brash new ideas and pioneering music, and he often talked about visiting or even trying to work in the US.

Among the earliest of his champions in this country was Theodore Thomas, who started conducting Wagner's music when it was brand newsome three decades before he founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In fact, Thomas's debut concert as a symphonic conductor, in New York City in 1862, opened with the American premiere of The Flying Dutchman Overture that is performed at this concert. Over the next few years, he introduced some of Wagner's most important works to this countrythe prelude to Tristan and Isolde in 1866, less than a year after the world premiere of the opera in Munich, and the Meistersinger Overture seven months later.

When Thomas introduced Chicago Symphony audiences to the Overture to The Flying Dutchman in 1892, the program book summarized the opera's genesis and storyline:

Wagner read Heine's legend of "The Flying Dutchman," the unhappy mariner, who after trying long in vain to pass the Cape of Good Hope, had sworn not to desist if he had to sail on the ocean to eternity. For his blasphemy he was condemned to the fate of the Wandering Jew, his only hope of salvation lying in his release through the devotion unto death of a woman, and to find such he is allowed, every seven years, to go on shore. Senta finally proves his saving angel, although at the cost of her life.

The Overture to The Flying Dutchman is based on two themes-the Dutchman and his redemption-interwoven with musical mottoes associated with the sailors and their lovers' spinning wheels, and highlighted by a hair-raising forecast of one of music's fiercest storms.


Phillip Huscher

© 2012 Chicago Symphony Orchestra



Alternative Energy


Mason Bates first made a name for himself as a composer who liked to incorporate electronics within orchestral music. That was not really unexpected from someone who first heard an orchestra listening to Pink Floyd and Moody Blues albums, and was taken by the seamless fusion of orchestral and electronic elements. When Bates started going to hear the Richmond Symphony in Virginia, where he grew up, he began to develop an understanding of the orchestra's place in history.

After a traditional musical upbringing in Richmond, which included piano lessons and singing in the choir, Bates studied composition and English literature in the Columbia-Juilliard joint program. He worked with David Del Tredici and John Corigliano, and then moved to the Bay Area in 2001 to enroll in the PhD program at Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technologies. His career, like his music, is a singular mix of old-world establishment and New Age culture: He has been lavished with big-league honors, from institutions such as the American Academy in Rome, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, most recently, the Heinz Award from the Heinz Family Foundation. He also has spent many nights as a DJ, spinning and mixing at dance clubs in San Francisco, New York City, Berlin, and Rome.

Alternative Energy, which occupied Bates for much of 2011, marks a new stage in his evolving"and, perhaps, maturing," as he saysapproach to integrating electronics into the orchestra. "The sounds coming from the speakers are as carefully crafted as the sonorities in the orchestra," he says, "and the influences reach far beyond techno." And the use of scrap metal in his large percussion battery, as well as sound samples collected from a particle accelerator at Fermilab outside Chicago, is merely part of Bates's ongoing quest to expand-and refine-his vocabulary of sound. Offsetting high-tech electronic sounds with old car parts fits perfectly with the sense of passing time and changing worlds that lies behind Alternative Energy. "The idea was that each movement would be separated by a hundred years," Bates says, "starting with old energy (the first movement uses scrap metal to evoke a junkyard) and moving to new energy (the second movement uses actual recordings from Fermilab to evoke a particle accelerator)."

Bates had been tossing around the ideas behind Alternative Energy for a long time, but hearing Riccardo Muti's performance of the Symphonie fantastique in Chicago last season and getting to know his "unique understanding of dramatic music" brought his "energy symphony" to life at last. Alternative Energy is his first work written expressly for the CSO and Riccardo Muti since Bates became one of the Chicago Symphony's Mead Composers-in-Residence in 2010.

Mason Bates on Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy
 is an "energy symphony" spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energya present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plantuntil it reaches a future Icelandic rain forest, where humanity's last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.

The idée fixe that links these disparate worlds appears early in Ford's Farm, 1896. This melody is heard on the fiddleconjuring a Henry Ford-like figureand is accompanied by junkyard percussion and a "phantom orchestra" that trails the fiddler like ghosts. The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever more powerful energy. Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement's present-day Chicago, where we encounter actual recordings from the Fermilab particle collider. Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections, and joyous voltage surges bring the movement to a clangorous finish.

Zoom a hundred years into the dark future of Xin Jian Province, 2112, where a great deal of the Chinese energy industry is based. On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the fiddle tune, dreaming of a forgotten natural world. But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown. As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even farther into the future: an Icelandic rain forest on a hotter planet. Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicatos accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times. The occasional song of future birds whips around us, a naturalistic version of the crank motif. Distant tribal voices call for the building of a fire-our first energy source.

—Phillip Huscher

© 2012 Chicago Symphony Orchestra


Symphony in D Minor

César Franck first won acclaim as a child prodigy. In 1830, his father enrolled him in the Liège Conservatory, and César made his first tour as a virtuoso pianist at the age of 11. In 1835, he moved to Paris for advanced study, and he walked off with many top prizes. Franck next won fame as an organist and a composer of organ music. Then, in middle age, he devoted himself to teaching; he came into his own as a composer late in his career. His major works, including this Symphony in D Minor, were all written between 1880 and 1890, the last decade of his life.

The D-Minor Symphony is the best known of Franck's orchestral works. It has three movements, a formal layout that Franck used in nearly all his major works. The entire score is saturated with the main theme of the first movement, a three-note motif that echoes the famous questioning motto of Beethoven's last string quartethe gave it the words Muss es sein? ("Must it be?"). The opening movement follows the general guidelines of sonata form, but it also ranges widely, reinventing and transforming its basic thematic material as it goes.

The Allegretto is both a slow movement and scherzo rolled into one. Its main melody, unfolded at a leisurely pace, is introduced by the English horn. Muted strings suggest the spirit of a scherzo, continuing and at the same time complementing what has gone before.

"The finale takes up all the themes again, as in [Beethoven's] Ninth," Franck wrote. "They do not return as quotations, however; I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements." That is the essence of the entire score-music continuously revisited, transformed, and in the process reborn. "I risked a great deal," Franck said of his new symphony, "but the next time I shall risk even more." Perhaps chastened by the cool reception the work received, however, he wrote no more orchestral works. It was only after his death that the D-Minor Symphony began to be played more-eventually becoming the most popular work in Franck's small but prime catalog.


—Phillip Huscher

© 2012 Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Bank of America Logo 8/18/11
This performance is sponsored by Bank of America, Carnegie Hall's Proud Season Sponsor.

Part of