Classically Trained: Chicago Symphony makes stop in Costa Mesa

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It was the kind of concert that you walked in thinking about, underwent intermission thinking about and left thinking about, too.

That's because the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's single-night, stop-on-the-tour performance Feb. 17 in Costa Mesa wasn't the kind expected. You know, the kind where the master ensemble freshly reproduces an old favorite for all to enjoy yet again — an admirable practice, albeit a common one.

Instead we were treated to the dusting off of the uncommon — César Franck's Symphony in D minor and Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231" — and a new experience altogether, Mason Bates' "Alternative Energy."

It was, like the name of Bates' new opus suggests, alternative. And very thought-provoking.

Things began in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall with Dean Corey, president and executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, speaking about how Chicago was here. Finally.

Before Feb. 17, it had been 25 years since the much-lauded orchestra from the Windy City had been in O.C.

The Chicago Symphony came on Corey's birthday, no less. On that Friday he turned 65 and was greeted with a four-tiered cake, happy singing and merry playing from the orchestra.

Then came the show.

Led by Riccardo Muti, the renowned Italian conductor who's been leading Chicago since September 2010, things began with "Pacific 231." The most menacing piece with its mechanistic influences was nicely executed — brassy, rhythmic and driving — though what came next was even better.

"Alternative Energy" has four movements: "Ford's Farm, 1896"; "Chicago, 2012"; "Xinjiang Province, 2112"; and "Reykjavik, 2222." The composer dubs it an "energy symphony."

There is energy aplenty in the work, notably in the form of fiddle-playing in "Ford's Farm" played by concertmaster Robert Chen, though he was sometimes hard to hear. There was car cranks by percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who also drummed on something resembling — to me, at least — a car bumper.

With all the synchronized electronic thumps that whirled about, the rainforest ambient sounds and a few other surprises, I found it to be one of those pieces of music that appeals to the gut, not the heart. It's an intellectual exercise, not an exercise of emotion.

Still, I liked it.

Of course, opinions about such a divisive work will vary. Features Editor Imran Vittachi, who attended the concert with me, called "Alternative Energy" an interesting and unusual piece, though "too eclectic and herky-jerky" for his liking. Our difference of opinion was likely quite common among the concert patrons.

As they say, to each his own.

Bates was there to perform it that evening. Dressed in all black, he did his thing to his music on his Mac. (Surely a PC wouldn't be hip enough.)

He was met with a standing ovation after "Alternative Energy" ended. It precluded the intermission where I surmised that people were talking less about the weather and more about the music they just heard.

The Franck symphony was sumptuous, emotional, serene — a real antithesis to the two works before it.

I loved Chicago's euphonious strings, take-no-prisoners brass and Muti's straightforward conducting.

It was an unmistakable sound from an unmistakably great orchestra.

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There will be a free organ recital with Craig S. Williams at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Road, Newport Beach.

Williams is the organist and choirmaster for the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. MilitaryAcademy. At the chapel in West Point, N.Y., he plays on the world's largest church organ.

The concert is being dubbed "A Day at the Opera and other West Point Musical Legacies." It seeks to musically share the legacy of Frederick C. Mayer, Cadet Chapel's first organist and choirmaster, who served from 1911 to 1954.

St. Andrew's organ has more than 5,100 pipes over 93 ranks. The church's organist, Jung-A Lee, is also scheduled to play a duet with Williams.

A free-will offering will be accepted.

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Next week, the Pacific Symphony will be playing alongside Korean pianist Joyce Yang. The featured work is Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. Michael Stern of the Kansas City Symphony is the guest conductor

Tickets start at $25 to the 8 p.m. concerts from March 1 to March 3 in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall. For more information, visit http://www.pacificsymphony.org or call (714) 755-5799.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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