Even with Yo-Yo Ma, Muti and Chicago Symphony, premiere of double cello concerto proves a mixed melange

February 01, 2014
Yo-Yo Ma and Giovanni Sollima share applause after the world premiere of Sollima's "Antidotum Tarantulae XXI" with Riccardo Muti and the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Yo-Yo Ma and Giovanni Sollima share applause after the world premiere of Sollima’s “Antidotum Tarantulae XXI” with Riccardo Muti and the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In their first performance of 2014 on home turf, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, back from their successful European tour, kicked off their Schubert cycle Thursday night at Symphony Center. But the main event came with the evening’s centerpiece: the world premiere of Giovanni Sollima’s Antidotum Tarantulae XXI, Concerto for Two Cellos, with Yo-Yo Ma and the composer as soloists.

The commission was the brainchild of the CSO music director, a friend and colleague of Sollima, who thought it would be interesting to bring the cellist-composer together with Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s creative consultant, for a new work.

Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos apart, the repertory is not bursting with multi-cello concertos. Even the hyperprolific Vivaldi only tried it once.

Sollima is a somewhat surprising choice for a Muti collaborator. Some of his past exploits as a cellist and composer verge between experimental and gimmicky—including once playing a cello made of ice in a mountaintop igloo.

In his rather impenetrable program note, Sollima describes the composition process for this work as “a bit of chaos.” The resulting double concerto, he says, is “a mix of ritual” and, seemingly, a sort of musical Baedeker Guide of Italy’s ancient history, musical and otherwise. The work contains quotations from obscurities such as Matteo de Perugia, Nicola Vicentino, and Athanasius Kircher as well as the considerably less obscure Leonardo da Vinci. The title refers to tarantism—not of the fatal spider-bite variety, but in a local historical context, referencing the sort of fast, half-crazed dance of Southern Italy, from which the “tarantella” derives.

During Thursday’s debut performance, a mostly well-behaved service dog in the lower balcony began to get restless, growling quietly. While Sollima’s concerto has its worthy moments, I confess I shared the same reaction.

Despite the myriad cited inspirations, the most direct influence to these ears was The Protecting Veil by John Tavener for cello and string orchestra. Indeed, the opening high, winding solo cello lines seem to place Sollima as a kind of secular counterpart to Tavener’s spiritual mysticism.

In fact it was those inward moments that proved most successful. Antidotum Tarantulae XXI runs about 25 minutes with five interlinked sections performed without pause. The work begins in low ominous strings and percussion with the two cellos entering individually and, after duetted passages, embarking on a rising lyrical theme. A very fast Allegro ensues with much virtuosic writing for the soloists against syncopated percussion riffs.

Yet the blazing bravura and often quite beautiful solo passages fail to cohere with other moments of awe-inspiring banality—most notably the thumping circus band theme of the middle section, later reprised. Perhaps the idea is to sound a satiric note of some kind but it came across more like an overserved Sicilian wedding party that had gotten out of hand.

There is asymmetric col legno tapping by the soloists and more virtuosic bursts, yet Sollima’s over-the-top scoring often defeats his best impulses. The haunting sound of a wind-like ocean drum was initially effective than quickly grew tiresome from going on far too long. Some of Sollima’s pops-style percussion whoops elicited uneasy laughter Thursday night and suggested second-rate European film music.

It takes some confidence to write a concerto for two cellos and take the first part yourself while ceding the second part to the world most celebrated exponent of the instrument. Yet Sollima’s solo playing was more successful and convincing than his composing, the Italian cellist more than holding his own with Yo-Yo Ma, which is saying something. The two men echoed each other’s hushed phrasing and dynamics in almost symbiotic accord and threw off the virtuosic passages with alert cohesion and equal panache.

Muti and the orchestra gave this premiere roistering, full-blooded advocacy, as if they were performing a masterpiece. The concerto was greeted with warm extended applause by the assembled.

Thursday’s program effectively launched the CSO’s Schubert cycle, in which Muti will lead performances of all the composer’s symphonies through the end of this season.

Muti recorded all the Schubert symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1980s and 90s (the EMI set remains a steal at $11.95 on Amazon). The conductor’s approach has changed little, favoring fleet tempos and transparent textures with some dramatic weight in reserve as needed.

The Symphony No. 3 was all sunny lyricism and bucolic charm with Muti’s trim, lithe sonority ideally proportioned for this music. The wind lines sparkled winningly with gracious and charming solos by clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, oboist Eugene Izotov and bassoonist William Buchman. Guest flutist Thomas Robertello, professor at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, blended with his CSO colleagues gracefully.

Muti believes Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 to be among his finest works. While subtitled “Tragic,” the darker expression is not violent or impassioned in the Late Romantic manner but more allusive and suggestive. The music is cast with Schubert’s energetic buoyancy yet there is a driven urgency in the Fourth that hints at something desperate beneath the surface.

Muti’s light-footed approach kept the music in early 19th-century scale yet he consistently highlighted the abrupt accents. There was a restless unease underneath the Biedermeier lyric simplicity of the Andante and the irregular galumphing main theme of the Menuetto felt aptly strange. The C- major finale provides an optimistic conclusion but here Muti’s highlighting of the nervous running string accompaniment kept the music off center.

Schubert is among Muti’s specialties, and his wholly idiomatic way provided Viennese charm and tonal refinement while underlining the most forward-looking elements in a deft and subtle fashion. The CSO strings emerged even more silken and Viennese than usual in this repertory and, based on these inspired performances, this Schubert series should provide ample season highlights.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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