Muti opens 10th Chicago Symphony season with whirlwind brilliance, and a piano warhorse blooms anew

September 21, 2019
Leif Ove Andsnes performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The season-opening concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week also marks the start of Riccardo Muti’s tenth season at the helm as music director. Muti’s near-decade in Chicago has brought deserved acclaim for the high international profile and quality of the ensemble’s performances under his baton—as well as criticism of his conservative programming and the relentless backstage drama that has made 220 S. Michigan a revolving door for administration and staff. 

CCR will take a broader look at Muti’s tenure later in the season. But Thursday night’s opener at Symphony Center was a time to celebrate the extraordinary artistic success of this partnership.

Apart from the traditional season-opening rendition of the National Anthem, the first concert of Muti’s 10th season was refreshingly free of the formalities, speechifying and hype that often accompany such occasions, with the focus put entirely on the music.

The only concern was the rows of empty seats—many in prime locations—which is virtually unprecedented for a populist CSO opener. Some have posited that last spring’s bitter and controversial seven-week strike by CSO musicians would have a negative box office result, with turned-off subscribers failing to renew and regular patrons staying away. Whether the vacant seats were a direct result of the strike or a testament to the ongoing challenge of selling live classical music in the 21st century remains to be seen.

Attendance issues aside, the music-making was inspired and often glorious Thursday night, and one could hardly wish for a finer kickoff to the orchestra’s 129th season.

The Shostakovich symphony that closed the evening provided the requisite flash and excitement. But in many ways, it was the first item—Mendelssohn’s Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage—that provided the most striking and eloquent testament to the Muti-CSO partnership.

The hushed stillness of the opening bars of the Goethe-inspired overture—starting in the lower strings and passing to the violins—brought playing of unearthly beauty and tonal refinement. Muti’s tempo was arguably too slow but the gorgeous playing sustained his lovingly expansive treatment. Each ensuing episode followed seamlessly—the sea-breezy Allegro, nautical trumpets and storm-tossed climax— all kept in scale with precise dynamic marking that always felt organic and unpedantic. In its subtle way, the steep hairpin turn from double forte to pp in the final pages—closing the work in glowing solace—was as thrilling as anything heard all evening.

Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor has been a concert hall mainstay since its 1869 Copenhagen debut. In recent decades the concerto has lost some of its formerly ineradicable status, the work’s big melodies and extrovert solo part seemingly too accessible and out of step with our cynical times. Yet this is a magnificent work, chock full of rich melody and with grateful opportunities for a gifted soloist.  

One expected great things from Leif Ove Andsnes in this most celebrated work of his great compatriot—and the Norwegian pianist delivered the goods. Andsnes is among the finest keyboard artists of our time, a musician of refinement and integrity whose stellar technique and searching sensibility are always put wholly at the service of the music.

From the familiar opening solo flourish, Andsnes delivered an uncommonly fresh account of this much-played and recorded work. (The pianist’s own 2002 EMI recording remains peerless.) There was ample fire in the virtuosic pages but the brilliance was kept in scale and never utilized for mere showy effect. Most striking was the tender introspection he brought to the score—lingering in lyric passages and illuminating the cadenza with supple phrasing that had one hanging on every note. 

Andsnes brought a poised yet unsentimental touch to the Adagio and the fireworks of the finale went with all due excitement while tempered in a way that made unified the solo bravura with the more nostalgic pages.

Muti can often be in parallel lanes with soloists when accompanying concertos but he was clearly a simpatico partner with Andsnes—tamping down any hint of schmaltz in the cellos’ big tune of the first movement, and bringing responsive support from the orchestra throughout.

Four curtain calls brought Andsnes back out for—what else?—more Grieg. He offered a rendition of the “Norwegian March” (Gangar) from the composer’s Op. 54 Lyric Pieces, rendered with delicacy and bumptious good cheer.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 closed the concert. The premiere was a victim of dashed expectations at its 1938 debut. Following the enormous worldwide success of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the Soviet cultural commissars expected another populist “heroic” work in the same mould. What they got was an oddly bifurcated piece—a vast and tragic opening movement followed by two increasingly lightweight movements that together are shorter than the first movement. 

Shostakovich’s Sixth is performed regularly these days but the structure remains a challenge for conductors to make the starkly divergent sections cohere. It wasn’t clear that Muti has cracked the code Thursday night but he drew a crackling performance of such total commitment and whirlwind brilliance that the problematic architecture seemed almost beside the point.

From the cataclysmic opening bars, the long first movement was imbued with unflinching concentration and dramatic sweep. The music unfolded with a sense of inevitability–stark in its powerful climaxes yet very human in its restrained moments with a striking degree of dynamic detailing. As often with this composer, the spare, forlorn wind solos have the sense of an individual lost in a desolate, pitiless landscape, and were most sensitively evoked by the CSO players, oboist William Welter and English hornist Scott Hostetler most notably. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s pure-toned flute solos seemed to offer a ray of hopeful light out of the bleak darkness.

The ensuing Allegro went with rambunctious energy in Shostakovich’s best satiric-sardonic scherzo mode, with Muti unleashing the full power of the orchestra in an aptly bombastic, percussion-led climax. 

The symphony ends with a Presto galop, led by Muti in unapologetic showpiece mode, with insistent exuberance and rhythmic swagger. The players brought apt metallic brilliance to this manic finale, Muti ratcheting up the adrenaline of the antic main theme to a dervish coda, the final note accented by one of the conductor’s impressively athletic podium leaps.

Across all sections, the playing had the finely polished gleam and corporate and individual virtuosity of the orchestra at its best. Muti and the CSO are in hale health and back in business for another season.

The symphony was preceded by Alexander Scriabin’s Rêverie. One would never guess at the composer’s bizarro, iconoclastic music to come, from this thoroughly traditional piece, Scriabin’s first work for orchestra. Muti has a fondness for these stringy lyric miniatures, and led a suitably sumptuous performance, making an offbeat prelude to the Shostakovich symphony. 

Appointed last May and starting his first full CSO season, new principal horn David Cooper made the most of several opportunities in a largely impressive showing. At some ensemble moments, his playing seemed fractionally overloud, not quite blending with his colleagues. But there were outstanding moments as well—with some lovely quiet playing in the Grieg concerto, and Cooper displayed daunting power at times in the Shostakovich symphony, with an individual peppery rasp to his tone.

Leif Ove Andsnes will perform the Grieg Piano Concerto at the CSO’s “Symphony Ball” concert 7 p.m. Saturday. The gala program includes the Sinfonia from Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and von Suppé’s Overture to Boccaccio.; 312-294-3000

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