Muti’s influence already evident in Civic Orchestra season opener

Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 1:47 am

By Dennis Polkow

Cliff Colnot led the Civic Orchestra in music of Sibelius and Ravel Monday night at Orchestra Hall.

As the first Symphony Center concert of the Riccardo Muti era, there was a palpable change perceptible in the hall Monday night as the Civic Orchestra, the professional training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, opened its 92nd season. 

Not only were musicians and audience members still buzzing about Muti’s debut concert as CSO music director in Millennium Park the day before, but the stage itself was visually reconfigured for this week’s CSO Berlioz concerts; even the newly designed program book now lists Muti as the music director of the Civic Orchestra on its cover.     

In opening remarks, CSO educational vice president Charles Grode spoke explicitly of some of the changes expected for the Civic Orchestra under Muti, who is so committed to working with the ensemble that an open rehearsal next month with Muti in the Pilson neighborhood was one of the first planned events scheduled for the month-long “Festa Muti” celebration. 

It would be hard to think of a more ideal piece for a professional training orchestra to prepare and present than Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, which opened Monday’s program. 

Composed a century ago, the work offers an original early-20th century take on combining two poles that in the 19th century were often perceived to be irreconcilable: the modulating chromaticism of post-Tristan Wagner and the neo-Classicism and structural integrity of Brahms.

Sibelius uses a large orchestra but, like Brahms, he wields his forces to focused and precise effects.  The four-movement, thirty-five minute work is almost divided into two halves that are through-composed.  

Demands on the players are often that of performing chamber music with all of the interplay between principal soloists and particularly, the strings that often respond almost in antiphon fashion.

Kudos to principal conductor Cliff Colnot for making sure that the various episodic aspects of the piece came across as a coherent whole, though wider dynamic contrast and more nuanced sonority shading might have helped make the work as engaging for the audience to hear as it obviously was for the orchestra to perform. 

By contrast, a wide palette of color and dynamics was on display during the performance of Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe that concluded the evening.  Colnot seemed more at home with the Ravel than the Sibelius, and by extension, so did the orchestra.

As with the Sibelius, there was plenty for the principal players to do in showcasing their ability to effectively weave in and out of the orchestral fabric, but the overall impact was clearer and cleaner. 

Particularly evocative was the orchestra’s hushed Daybreak section, but no less impressive was the gradual build-up to the couple’s Pantomime that ultimately gives way to their passion, brilliantly expressed in the music itself and making for a rousing and colorful finale to the evening.

Riccardo Muti will lead the Civic Orchestra in an open rehearsal of Chávez’  Symphony No. 2 Sinfonía india and the first two movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica at 11 a.m. Saturday, October 9 at Benito Juarez Community Academy, 2150 S. Laflin; 773-534-7030; Free; No tickets required, but seating is limited.

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