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IN PERFORMANCE

'The Chicago River' gets jazzed

Orbert Davis' world-premiere symphony tells an epic story in five bracing movements

Howard Reich

9:31 AM CDT, May 25, 2013

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The reversal of the Chicago River more than a century ago helped transform a polluted, disease ridden city into a sprawling, modern metropolis.

It also wiped out vegetation, sank land masses and triggered flooding along the Illinois River and beyond, as Chicago sent its human waste and other detritus – from stockyards, tanneries and what-not – downstream toward St. Louis.

That epic tale, and the engineering feat that made it possible in 1900, long ago became part of the can-do lore of this city. But on Friday evening, it took on a new form as a jazz symphony by Chicagoan Orbert Davis, whose five-movement work told the story in emotionally gripping ways. With historic, black-and-white images from the turn of the previous century projected onto a screen above the stage of Symphony Center, Davis led his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in the world premiere of "The Chicago River."

The piece traced the narrative of a city on the make with grandeur and introspection, jazz rhythm and symphonic gesture. As bold and brawny as the city it sought to portray, the work lived up to its enormous subject matter, even if "The Chicago River" did not push into unfamiliar or innovative musical languages. Davis, in other words, has written more complex and daring scores than this, by far, but none as mature, concise, finely crafted or expressively profound.

Inspired by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams' book "The Lost Panoramas" – which published rediscovered photos documenting the reversal of the river's flow – Davis' opus opened just as the tome does: with idyllic scenes of the Illinois River. As the audience savored bucolic images of downstate locales, the orchestra played a pastoral music of comparable serenity. Winds and strings shaped lovely phrases, the music proceeding unhurriedly, like the gentle flow of the waters. Titled "A Lost Panorama," this opening movement turned back the calendar to a much slower, more peaceful time and place.

The city of Chicago, flexing its muscles in the aftermath of the great fire of 1871, changed all that, pouring into the river blood and guts and waste – the byproducts of an urban colossus in the making. Davis achieved his most brilliant tone painting in this portion of the story, evocatively titled "Brewing the Toxic Stew": The rumbling low-register writing, thick-as-mud textures and snarling, smarting dissonance produced a vivid sonic portrait of all this muck. Accompanying photos of so much putrid material oozing into the river heightened the effect.

This odious brew could not be allowed to continue to befoul Lake Michigan, where the river emptied and Chicago drew its drinking water. Cholera, typhoid fever and other waterborne diseases were killing people, hence the audacious plan to reverse the river. Davis' "Retrograde" movement ingeniously captured the optimistic spirit that enabled a young city to take on nature itself, the music upbeat, up-tempo and exuberant. Better still, it drew upon the early ragtime rhythms of the period, thereby very evoking not only the flavor of the era but its musical syntax.

In the symphony's penultimate movement, "Fortress of Solitude," Davis ventured away from the storyline of Cahan and Williams' book, instead looking inward, toward his own youth growing up in Momence, alongside the Kankakee River. As a boy who harbored dreams of someday becoming a jazz musician in Chicago, Davis often practiced his horn at riverside, and his somewhat melancholy fluegelhorn solos in "Fortress of Solitude" reflected not only his longings back then but also the bittersweet fate of the rivers themselves. Chicago's triumph in reversing the waters' direction, after all, wreaked havoc elsewhere, and Davis' plaintive horn lines – set against a simple string backdrop – eloquently expressed this dichotomy. Recall the lyric poetry of Samuel Barber, as in his "Adagio for Strings" or "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," and you're hearing the tap root of Davis' music here.

It would be difficult to overstate the dramatic power of Davis' final movement, "The Seventh Wonder," its title referring to the nickname accorded Chicago's engineering triumph. But like all the preceding movements, Davis built this one subtly, its crescendos gradual, its rhythms pulsing but not rushed, its degree of orchestral detail remarkable to behold. Saxophonist Steve Eisen held the most prominent role here, his solos not looking to the past (as in the work's earlier ragtime references), but to the present, in the form of intricate phrase-making, blues-drenched phraseology and unabashed bursts of dissonance.

Clearly Davis was evoking Chicago of today, his choice of tenor saxophone as the lead voice a clever one, considering that this instrument, above all others, has come to epitomize Chicago jazz (just as the trumpet long ago became the signature jazz instrument of New Orleans). As "The Seventh Wonder" brought "The Chicago River" to a finale, Eisen unleashed a storm of ideas, the orchestra providing dramatic punctuation in the form of slashing fortissimo chords. And in one of the most persuasive closing passages Davis ever has written, he extended the conclusion of the work with a series of climaxes, giving drummer Ernie Adams an extended solo before Eisen, Adams and the orchestra alternated exclamatory statements.

When a final shot of the Chicago River today suddenly appeared on screen – gleaming high rises stacked alongside the river – the audience instantly erupted with applause. It would have been impossible not to.

It's critical to note, however, that notwithstanding its storyline, "The Chicago River" had a great deal to say on purely musical terms. Like all great pieces of program music, from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sixth Symphony to Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," Davis' "The Chicago River" ultimately needed no narrative or images. The music spoke searingly for itself.

In performance, Davis may have erred in encouraging the audience to applaud after particular solos from the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, thereby interrupting the flow of the music. And Davis could have pushed the last movement, at least, into more bracing, experimental territory. Moreover, the shorter pieces Davis and the Philharmonic offered in the brief first half of the concert felt like a mere warm-up for the main event, complete with technical flaws from particular instrumentalists.

But those are minor quibbles in an evening that really was about "The Chicago River," which was commissioned by Symphony Center as part of its ongoing "Rivers" series. The piece now stands as the most masterful work Davis has written – quite an accomplishment, considering the copiousness of his pen.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich