Muti, Chicago Symphony kick off season at South Side church

September 23, 2011

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the season-opening concert Thursday night at the Apostolic Church of God. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti opened his second season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night — not at the ensemble’s Michigan Avenue home but 63 blocks south at the Apostolic Church of God.

The CSO played there once before a decade ago and Thursday night’s belated return underlined Muti’s stated desire to bring his orchestra and classical music to new audiences.

The Italian conductor immediately won over the overflow crowd — estimated at more than 5,000 — with his opening remarks, saying that he and the CSO “are here to bring our feelings, our love and our friendship.” He drew particular applause when he stated that “music is one of the few things in the world that can bring all people together.”

Muti, the CSO and staff could hardly have wished for a better or more appreciative audience. Those in the packed house listened with respectful silence and concentration, clearly involved and responsive to the evening’s performances.

The vast, imposing edifice with its wooden ceiling and angled brick walls looked like an acoustical nightmare but the sound, at least on the left center of the room was not at all bad. The room has surprising clarity and though undeniably on the dry side with little bloom, that lend a nice raw, unvarnished punch to the brass.

The program opened with Verdi’s overture to Giovanna D’Arco (Joan of Arc). Muti’s mastery in this repertoire is nearly without peer as the performance showed — elegantly pointed with a jaunty toe-tapping swagger (no wonder John Philip Sousa snapped it up for his band). The lyrical middle section made effective contrast with especially lovely wind playing from Richard Graef, Eugene Izotov and Stephen Williamson, who was making his local debut as the CSO’s new principal clarinet.

Mathieu Dufour

Mathieu Dufour was the evening’s solo protagonist in Ibert’s Flute Concerto. Written in 1932 for the great Marcel Moyse, the piece may not be a masterpiece — Mozart apart, how many flute concertos are? — but Dufour provided the finest conceivable advocacy. The CSO principal flutist’s seamless technical ease, fluent runs, and remarkable breath control made a meal of the opening Allegro’s amiable Gallic fripperies.

The central Andante is the strongest section of the concerto. Dufour floated the gorgeous, long-limbed melody — one worthy of Ravel — with hushed inward expression, Robert Chen lending a sensitive obbligato violin assist. The closing movement provided the requisite fireworks with Dufour’s gleaming virtuosity dazzling even by his standard. Muti and the orchestra provided snappy and vital support.

Tchaikovsky has long been a cornerstone in Muti’s favorite repertoire, and, while programming the Russian’s inescapable Symphony No. 5 to open the season doesn’t show much imagination, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Rarely will one encounter this degree of acute dynamic marking in the lugubrious clarinet opening. Muti’s scrupulous balancing uncovered an array of detailing even in this thrice-familiar work, such as the loopy tuba writing in the first movement, usually felt more than heard.

Yet the performance was never pedantic nor overrefined and Muti and the CSO delivered a combustible account of the finale, all the more effective for not souping up the volume or tempo. The immediate cheers and standing ovation showed a genuine and emotional response to this combustible performance.

The only blot on the Tchaikovsky was Dale Clevenger. The 71-year-old CSO principal began the Andante’s famous horn solo with solid if thin-toned playing that soon degenerated in embarrassing fashion. It’s long past the time that CSO management address this ongoing high-wire act, which continues to exert a damaging effect on the orchestra.

That apart, it was clear that Muti and the orchestra succeeded in making scores of musical converts Thursday at the Apostolic Church and hopefully many in attendance will make their way downtown for a future CSO performance.

NOTE: In addition to Williamson, Thursday’s opener also marked the official debut of the CSO’s new associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong who will share the first stand with concertmaster Chen.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center with a suite from Nino Rota’s film score for The Leopard replacing the Verdi overture.; 312-294-3000.

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