Our first performance for 2014 came in March when we headed off from our winter RVing home in North Fort Myers FL to Chicago for the weekend…talk about temperature extremes…we had them. Friday morning we headed off about 0830 for our 1100 flight to Chicago. Got parked and checked in just fine and said a temporary goodbye to the 75 degree weather here in Fort Myers…when we landed in Chicago it was overcast, show showers, and in the low 30’s. Nonetheless…we caught the Blue Line train from O’Hare and an hour or so later arrived at the Congress Plaza Hotel for two nights. The Congress has the advantage that it’s close to Symphony Hall. The room itself was decently large…almost as much footage as our house in fact…but the amenities left something to be desired. It’s pretty expensive since it’s a downtown hotel…and has all the “old building” drawbacks that downtown “historic” hotels usually have. Still, the bed was decent and it was close to what we needed to get to so we could just walk.
Friday evening we headed out about 1700 for dinner. We had eaten an an Irish Pub named Millers last time we were here but decided instead on the 1 block closer to our hotel Exchequer Pub and Restaurant due to the cold north wind…by this time it was dark, damp, 25 and windy so we weren’t interested in walking any farther than we had to. Grabbed a seat at the bar and had a couple pints of Exchequer Amber Ale from the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
Really, really good stuff. We got to talking with the guy sitting to our right (Steve Paulin) and turns out he is the Assistant Box Office Manager for the Chicago Symphony. After we told our story of coming in just for the Saint Saëns Organ Symphony…he asked to see our tickets. We showed them to him and he said…”You’re nice people and I was going to upgrade your tickets for you…but you already have just about the best seats in the house.”. He gave us his contact info and encouraged us to contact him if we came into town again and he would make sure we got good seats. He headed back to the office about 1845 or so since he had an evening performance (it was just a block away) and we had dinner. In honor of the late Roger Ebert who said that the Chicago Pizza here was the best in town we had a Deep Dish Mushroom pie…it was about an inch thick with half of that being melted cheese. We only got a 10 inch pie and despite having nothing since lunch except a small order of Jalapeño poppers with the first pint were only able to finish about three quarters of the pizza. Too bad…it was really good. Steve also had been to Ireland and recommended that we check out Kilbeggen Irish Whiskey while we were there…the oldest distillery in the country and he said it’s better than Jameson.
After that we let ourselves be blown downwind back to the hotel where we crashed and burned pretty early after a long travel day.
Saturday dawned with 20 degrees and snow showers. We ran up the street to Duncan Donuts for breakfast then just hung around the hotel all day as it was too cold, dreary, and windy to do anything else. After some discussion on whether to find a fancy place for dinner or not…we elected to hit the Exchequer again. We headed up there about 1630 and had more Exchequer Amber and dinner…fish and chips for Connie and a pretty decent cheeseburger for Neil. We capped it off with another beer for Connie and a Jameson Irish Whiskey for Neil…they gave us a really nice pour, probably two and a half normal shots. We sipped on that until it was time to head over for the concert.
We knew this concert would be good back when we saw the lineup…the conductor was Charles Dutoit who did a really famous and excellent recording of the Saint Saëns with the Montreal Symphonie and the soloist was Paul Jacobs. Paul is this 28 or 29 year old kid who is far and away the best organist we have ever heard. The concert started off with a 30 minute organ recital by Paul starting at 1900…what an amazing talent. The only piece we had heard before was the Widor Toccata…this is the most famous piece of French Organ Music and all of you have heard it even though you may not know the name. Here’s a link to a youtube recording of it.
Following the recital we had the concert proper. There was an opening piece named La Peri by Dukas which is supposed to be a fanfare and allegro sort of thing…the fanfare part was pretty good but the rest of it didn’t really do anything for us. It wasn’t bad…just seemed to go on too long more than anything. Following that we had to pay for the Saint Saëns to come…the Poir sortie au jour (Concerto for Flute and Orchestra) by Guillaume Connesson. As can be expected from most pieces whose year of composition is anytime past about 1950 or so…it was…well, not quite awful to the level of the infamous world premier of Ode to the Garbage Can by the Fairfax Symphony’s Composer in Residence did many years ago. At least it was melodic and didn’t sound like fingernails scratching down the chalkboard mixed with cat wails from the rocking chair. It did however…go on and on and on…but thankfully it eventually ended and we escaped to the lobby for intermission.
Returning to the concert hall we grabbed a picture of the stage and organ pipes in the background from our seats…we truly did have about the best seats we could have had, almost in the center of the lower balcony about 8 rows back.
Tonight’s performance shows you how much impact a world class conductor and soloist can have on the performance of a piece. We’ve heard the Chicago Symphony do the Saint Saëns before and while it was good it wasn’t spectacular. Mr. Dutoit believes in letting the organ speak loudly (it is known as the Organ Symphony after all) and both the orchestra and Mr. Jacobs rose to the occasion. We detected nary a poorly hit note from the entire orchestra…even in some of the almost silent parts where there are solo french horn and flute entrances that are bobbled a bit most of the time. All of those precisely timed entrances were spot on.
We thought the folks up in the rows behind the orchestra and below the pipes would jump in fright at the beginning of the Finale with the loud C-Major chord from the organ but they just sat there…maybe being below the pipes they were shielded from the sound barrage.
In any event the piece continued to the end with an outstanding performance…this one clearly jumped into the top 3 of all the performances we have witnessed and we really noticed how much better the Chicago Symphony was than the last time.
We headed back to our hotel (fortunately it was again downwind as it was really cold by this time) and rested up for our early wakeup…in addition to needing to get to the airport for an 1100 flight we had to contend with the Spring Forward of Daylight Savings Time. We got to the airport and were waiting in line for our flight. When Connie made our reservations we had a non stop on the way up but ended up with a connection through Cleveland and a 2.5 hour layover; the direct return flight was 100 bucks each more expensive and only got here an hour or so faster so we passed on it. Anyway; the nice lady at United called us out of the boarding line and asked us…”Why are you going to Fort Myers via Cleveland?”. We explained about the cheaper fare…her response was that this flight was overbooked, she had 12 people on standby for one of those 100 or seat commuter jets…and how would we like to get upgraded to better seats on the direct flight. We would have to sit around O’Hare another 90 minutes or so but would get into Fort Myers an hour and 10 minutes earlier than originally scheduled. We thought about this for maybe 2 nanoseconds before agreeing. she got us exit row seats for more space and since nobody would likely buy a single middle seat upgrade gave us the aisle and window seats…we got on our plane later and had the row to ourselves for the flight.
We grabbed a tube steak (hotdog) from a stand in the airport (including neon green pickle relish on Connie’s…Neil thought it almost looked radioactive green, got our later flight and arrived back in sunny and warm southwest Florida shortly after 1700. Grabbed a package of frozen Ahi Tuna steaks from Publix on the way home and had seared tuna, wasabi and rice for dinner along with a couple of wine coolers.
Next performance is in April in Philadelphia…CYAs then.