Muti, Chicago Symphony open season in rousing festive style

September 21, 2012

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their season-opening concert Thursday at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If you want to catch Riccardo Muti this fall, you better move as fast as the Neapolitan conductor’s baton hand.

Muti opened his third season as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Thursday night with a festive program that will be reprised downtown for the next week. Apart from tonight’s encore of last season’s Carmina Burana at Millennium Park and a gala concert on the 29th, that will be it for the CSO’s music director in Chicago until January. Following this “hi and bye” week at Symphony Center, Muti and the CSO immediately leave for New York to open Carnegie Hall’s season and then are off on their first tour to Mexico.

The start of the evening was almost subdued by opening-night standards with no speeches and only the traditional National Anthem giving an indication that this subscription concert was the kickoff to the CSO’s 122nd season. And while the characteristically offbeat program of Dvořák, Martucci and Respighi looked odd on paper, with Muti and the CSO at their combustible best Thursday night, it made for a lively and resounding kickoff to the music season and upcoming road trip.

Dvořák has long held a place in Muti’s favored repertoire but this week marks the first time he has conducted the Czech composer’s music in Chicago. Typically, Muti elected to go with a less-often-heard work, the Symphony No. 5.

The Fifth hails from a particularly happy and productive period of Dvořák’s life, when his first successes boosted his confidence. Within a few months, he had composed the Serenade for Strings, Piano Quartet in D major, String Quintet in G major and Piano Trio in D flat as well as the present symphony.

The Fifth Symphony is an attractive early work, cast in Dvorak’s bucolic style, and imbued with the composer’s rich vein of beguiling lyricism. (The radiant opening bars could have come from no one else.) Only a certain stylistic dissonance keeps the Fifth from the level of his mature symphonies, with the dark and turbulent finale not quite cohering with the sunny expression of the preceding movements.

The memorable CSO performances led by Sir Mark Elder in the Dvorak Festival of 2009 placed the Czech composer in a central European context with an idiomatic style that captured the fresh outdoor quality and felt just right. Muti’s more robust approach at times sacrificed some of the music’s charm, particularly in the first movement which felt tense and hard-driven with eruptive sforzati.

But Muti’s direction had its own rewards. He consistently uncovered Dvorak’s gamboling woodwind lines, which received terrific playing by all the principals, particularly clarinetist Stephen Williamson. Further, Muti’s full-blooded approach made the symphony more of a consistent whole with the impassioned final movement seeming less like it’s coming out of left field, and here making for a thrilling coda.

The second half featured works of Ottorino Respighi and his teacher Giuseppe Martucci. Muti provided one of his inimitable spoken introductions to his compatriots’ music, which managed to be illuminating, charming and very funny, often all at the same time.

Most Italian composers famously opted for writing for the opera house rather than the concert hall. Muti is a dedicated advocate for Italian symphonic works, and no Italian composer merits more excavation than Giuseppe Martucci, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 received a powerful account by soloist Gerhard Oppitz and Muti a year ago.

Martucci’s Notturno is less ambitious, but this six-minute miniature is a gorgeous lyric gem, cast in an Elgar-like vein of sweet melancholy and rendered with glowing tone and heartfelt expression by Muti and the orchestra. Let’s hope that Muti gives us one of Martucci’s two symphonies in a future season.

Feste romane is the last and most rarely played of Respighi’s three Roman tone poems. While cast in the same interlinked suite-like structure of the more popular Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, Respighi’s Roman Festivals is less a quaintly picturesque musical postcard, than a darker, wilder ride. The opening “Circenses” (Circuses) depicts nothing less than the spectacle of the Roman Empire’s Circus Maximus in its heyday with its massive iron gates, screaming multitude, howling beasts, and doomed Christian martyrs.

As is often the case in Italian symphonic byways, Muti was at his finest in Respighi’s tone poem. With two trumpets leading the opening fanfare from a corner of the terrace, Muti and the orchestra put across the cinematic excess and Respighi’s crazed, uninhibited moments with enormous thrust. The swaggering popular tunes and, especially, the rambunctious over-served tumult of the closing Epiphany carousal (“La Befana”) made a massive sonic impact that could likely be heard outside on Michigan Avenue.

Yet, the CSO music director also made a worthy case for Feste romane as more than a noisy orchestral showpiece. He consistently illuminated Respighi’s resourceful scoring (including mandolin, four-hand piano, organ and nine-player percussion brigade) and conveyed the nuance and half-tones, as with his evocative handling of the nocturnal middle section of the “L’Ottobrata” (October Festival).

The brilliant Respighi along with the rest of this program should win new converts for Muti and the CSO with their upcoming road performances in New York and Mexico.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 and Sept. 28. Muti will also lead the CSO, CSO Chorus and soloists in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in a free concert at 6:30 p.m. tonight in Millennium Park.

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