In the face of ongoing COVID restrictions, as cases spike into a second (or third?) wave, the Chicago Symphony has returned to the (virtual) stage, in performances taped live at a Symphony Center empty of all but a few musicians and stage crew members. We started with episode three: an Igor Stravinsky octet (for winds and brass, not usually my area), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges‘ Violin Sonata in A Major No. 3, and Antonín Dvořák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48.
The performances were, of course, excellent. These are the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: they are among the best in the world, at the very top of their musical game. Igor Stravinsky’s octet, inspired, John Yeh told us, by a dream about snakes, was fascinating, which, okay, is partly because I never sit through anything with only winds and brass. But the eight musicians highlighted the delicate sides of the Chicago sound as their instruments slithered in and out of the tapestry of sound, letting us see a little of what Stravinsky must have dreamed.
Brothers Simon and Matous Michal performed Joseph Boulogne’s Violin Sonata in A Major No. 3, and it was a revelation. The Michals’ performance was a delight, as they shifted the first part between them, effortlessly bouncing it back and forth, giving the music an effervescent joy born of long collaboration. Simon Michal, who introduced the last two pieces, even mentioned that he and his brother could play back to back without looking and would still know what the other was doing—and it was obvious in their performance.
Boulogne—also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the name by which he is credited here—was likely the first Black composer of (western) classical musical. He an accomplished fencer (and ice skater, and swimmer, and everything else, apparently), and one of the greatest composers of his day. It is pretty solidly to our great shame that he is not as well-known as Mozart or Haydn, and to be blunt—I think we all know why that is. The Michals give his Sonata in A Major No. 3 their all, playing it with joy and precision and respect. And it is a magnificent piece of music.
The program concludes with Antonín Dvořák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48. It, too, is excellent, and, much like the Stravinsky, shows the more tender side of the Chicago sound, allowing each instrument and each performer to shine in turn. Dvořák’s chamber music is elegant and graceful, and it’s a delight to see and hear it performed—even more so because, in this time when we cannot gather, it is live, or at least was performed live on a stage to which we cannot, at this moment, gain access.
CSOtv is incredible, both for its magnificent performances and for its stellar example of management and musicians actually working together for the common good. I am truly grateful to the folks at Symphony Center for giving us this joy—and for keeping their musicians employed, while Lyric Opera seems determined to stab theirs in the back. Episode Three is a gem, worth catching for the Saint-Georges alone—but each piece is a marvel. Since it’s available to stream until November 13, you’ve still got the chance to watch it.