A Terpsichorean Muti, Bronfman lift a lightweight gala program with fizzing performances

Sat Sep 24, 2011 at 10:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Yefim Bronfman perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 as Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Symphony Ball” gala Saturday night mercifully had little of the drama of last year’s event.

At that time, the audience was kept waiting for a half-hour until the announcement came that Riccardo Muti was too ill to conduct. The evening’s soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter gracefully stepped in and did double duty in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as soloist and conductor..

Happily, the CSO’s music director was hale and alarmingly healthy Saturday night at Symphony Center. Indeed, Muti was at his most animated, crouching low, coaxing music with broad or intimate gestures and leaping into the air more than once, with podium calisthenics that make Leonard Bernstein seem catatonic.

Gala concerts are designed to get the tuxedoed and bejeweled high-rollers off to the champagne and liver pâté with alacrity without anything on the musical menu to complicate the aura of good cheer and sound digestion.

Saturday’s program certainly fit the bill with a lineup heavy on surface glitz and light on musical meat. Still so stylish and fizzing were the performances under Muti that doubts were largely swept away.

Carried over from the week’s subscription concerts, Verdi’s Overture to Giovanna d’Arco sounded more nuanced and refined than Thursday night’s reading at the Apostolic Church, partly due to a more grateful acoustic.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was premiered in 1913 but the original score was destroyed in a fire. The composer rewrote the work from scratch a decade later claiming the revised concerto was less a remembered copy than an entirely new work.

Prokofiev said that he wanted to answer critics of his First Piano Concerto by writing a bigger and more substantial work. Bigger it is, but the Second seems even more superficial than its predecessor, consisting largely of three scherzo-like movements with a lot of surface flash and solo brilliance but little else.

What substance there is exists largely in the opening Andantino, a moody, darkly rhapsodic meditation that sounds like astringent Rachmaninoff.

Yet so fiery and propulsive was the performance served up by soloist Yefim Bronfman, Muti and the CSO that they almost had you believing that Prokofiev’s Second Concerto is a better work than it is.

The ludicrous digital complexities held no terrors, of course, for Bronfman, a pianist possessed of one of the most complete and powerful techniques in the business. His feats of prestidigitation were astounding Saturday, as with the torrential buildup of notes and volume in the  first movement’s coda or his rollicking high-speed panache in the second movement’s moto perpetuo. Most impressive was the finale, as much for the limpid delicacy the pianist uncovered in the contrasting episodes as the virtuosic bravura. Prokofiev has long been one of Muti’s party-piece composers and the conductor whipped up comparable full-tilt support.

The program concluded with “The Four Seasons” — no, not that one. This is the large-scale ballet that Verdi composed for his opera, I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers).

Verdi’s ballet seems to exists in another universe than the gloomy opera it was intended for. A kind of balletic pops symphony, it segues from march-like tunes to waltzes and assorted high-stepping episodes.

A little of this brash, relentlessly rhythmic music goes a long way and, at nearly a half-hour, I confess one season would have been plenty for me.

Muti and the orchestra undeniably delivered playing of enormous zest and brilliance and were enjoying themselves immensely; smiles abounded, seemingly as much for their music director’s theatrical direction as the music. Stephen Williamson, the CSO’s new principal clarinet, brought an elegant and plaintive expression to his extended solo in “Spring” and Eugene Izotov floated a gentle evocative line in the sinuous lyrical theme of “Summer.”

Stephen Williamson (center) the CSO’s new principal clarinetist plays a solo Saturday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A Terpsichorean Muti, Bronfman lift a lightweight gala program with fizzing performances”

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2011 at 1:28 pm by eddie

    Thank you for teaching me the word terpsichorean, dancing

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