Muti, CSO open season with rich and eloquent Bruckner

Fri Sep 23, 2016 at 2:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Opening night of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 126th season was pretty much a no-frills, straightforward affair Thursday at Symphony Center. Riccardo Muti strode out to vociferous cheers and applause, gave the downbeat to the National Anthem and launched his seventh season as music director.

If the surface elements seemed all business, the music-making was anything but, particularly in the evening’s main work, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

Bruckner’s music has, of course, enjoyed a long and storied association with the CSO. Founder Theodore Thomas presented the U.S. premieres of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 and his Te Deum, both performed under Muti three months ago to close last season. Thomas presented four Bruckner symphonies in the orchestra’s earliest years, a tradition continued by Frederick Stock and on through Sir Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini and Daniel Barenboim to Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Muti today. (Solti and Barenboim each recorded complete Bruckner cycles with the CSO, on Decca and DG, respectively).

If Muti’s clarity and bold projection shorted an essential spiritual element in the Ninth last June, he appeared fully in synch with the epic Seventh.

One brief horn blip apart, the mysterious opening bars unfolded with a breadth and concentration that set the stage for the hour-long journey to follow. The ebb and flow was surely handled with the stop-start alternation between dramatic brass outbursts and Bruckner’s endearingly naive pastoralism flowing in a natural, wholly organic manner.

After much recent upheaval, the CSO woodwinds appear to be coming together, individually and as a cohesive unit. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson seems more comfortable than in his first season as principal flute—playing with fuller tone and greater projection, conveying the bucolic charm of Bruckner’s gracious al fresco writing.

The Adagio–a solemn tribute to the composer’s recently passed idol, Wagner–is the heart of the symphony. Led by Daniel Gingrich, the four Wagner tubas brought a sepulchral eloquence to this elegiac music that was deeply moving. Muti deftly guided the searching narrative through the prevailing subdued tragedy and, ultimately, its  luminous climax. (Surprisingly for such an Urtext musician, Muti maintained the spurious if effective added cymbal and triangle.)

The cockerel theme of the ensuing Scherzo went with admirable swagger. In the optimistic finale, Muti drew together the disparate themes skillfully, underlining a Haydnesque lightness in the perky main theme. The musical argument built inexorably to the final section, with a decisive hard-won triumph in the resplendent coda, the nine horns lending weighty gravitas to the final peroration.

Even by local standards, the playing of the orchestra was extraordinary, impressive as much for the many characterful solo contributions as much as the high-sheen ensemble cohesion.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Christopher Martin in his regular principal trumpet chair and performing with his usual distinction, when one expected him to have alighted to the New York Philharmonic. A CSO spokeswoman said that despite the announcement that he will become principal trumpet in New York, he “remains a CSO member” and will perform “select weeks” in Chicago this season.

The evening’s first half consisted of a pair of populist showpieces, both making up in polish and virtuosic execution what they lacked in programmatic contrast. As is often the case with Muti’s fall programs, they also amounted to tour prep with both works scheduled for the CSO’s European concerts in January.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain offered a pendant of sorts to last season’s 125th anniversary series spotlighting premieres by the orchestra. CSO archivist Frank Villella has recently confirmed that the CSO appears to have given the first U.S. performance of Mussorgsky’s tone poem as the core ensemble of the “Exposition Orchestra” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Muti led a characteristic performance of the witchy Mussorgsky-Rimsky-Korsakov confection, bold and thrusting, perhaps stronger on dramatic cut than atmosphere. The final section was most striking, the first rays of daylight conveyed by gently yielding violins and slender, silvery contributions by clarinetist Stephen Williamson and flutist Höskuldsson.

Muti’s forays into Richard Strauss in Chicago have been markedly few to date: just Aus Italien (of course) and Death and Transfiguration in his inaugural season.

Thursday’s fizzing performance of Don Juan made it clear that he should do more: fast, dashing, and knife-edged, Muti led a bravura reading with the blazing virtuosity of the orchestra in this challenging music impressive even to regulars.

Back in his former chair the CSO’s old-new principal oboe Alex Klein lifted a poised and expressive solo in the central “love” theme and the horns soared thrillingly over the ensemble at the work’s climax. Here too, Muti found an extra degree of expressive concentration in the quiet coda, which felt less anticlimactic than usual.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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8 Responses to “Muti, CSO open season with rich and eloquent Bruckner”

  1. Posted Sep 23, 2016 at 5:04 pm by Brad

    I went to this concert, and my seat was at the back of the center terrace. Of course, there’s no way to see the brass and percussion players from that spot. Aware that Chris Martin had started his new gig in New York, I wondered how the famed trumpet section would sound without him. After a fantastic performance of Don Juan, with its solo trumpet parts brilliantly executed, it was quite a pleasant surprise and relief to hear the trumpets carrying on in top form. However, the real surprise came when I saw that it was Chris Martin standing up to take his bows!

    Perhaps Maestro Muti asked him if he could play certain concerts when available. If he will be playing “select weeks” this season, I would guess those will be only when Muti is on the podium. In any case, it was great to hear him once again, along with the Maestro and the Orchestra, in another wonderful concert. I’ll hold out hope that he returns to Chicago after this year in New York. He’s an inspiring musician and appears to be a class act as well.

  2. Posted Sep 24, 2016 at 12:53 am by Paul Cohan

    Friday night’s performance was remarkable — Strauss and Bruckner — the audience picked up a few red cards — besides that, and the vagaries of Orchestra Hall — great start to the season.

  3. Posted Sep 24, 2016 at 10:44 am by Roger

    I take as very hopeful signs that Chris is not “officially” gone but “on leave”, that’ he’ll be playing selected programs in Chicago, and that the CSO has not posted an audition notice for Principal Trumpet. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but all of this leads me to believe he’s trying out New York, just as Mathieu Dufour tried out LA a few years ago. Keep your fingers crossed.

  4. Posted Sep 24, 2016 at 6:05 pm by Anne-Marie

    I was at Friday’s concert and it was inspiring as everyone has remarked thus far. To see Chris Martin there and playing brilliantly, as we all appreciate, was especially delightful!

    Unfortunately, at the first bars of the Adagio, someone thoughtlessly coughed and Maestro Muti stopped, turned back rather annoyed, and restarted the movement. He made a few of these backward glances throughout the performance.

    Is it just me or are Chicago concertgoers obsessed with coughing, particularly when the music is quiet? It is such a spoiler and as a Chicagoan, I am truly embarrassed by our audience etiquette – or lack thereof. There were also people taking photos. So much for civility!

    On my way home I caught an old Studs Terkel’s interview with Alfred Brendel on WFMT and the celebrated pianist made the same observation: he found Chicago audiences to be one of the “noisiest among the important cities of the world” during his concertizing years!

  5. Posted Sep 26, 2016 at 8:45 am by Mike


    If you think Chicago audiences are bad, you should have seen the audience at the Krannert Center at U of I for Saturday’s performance. When Muti came onstage at 7:30 for the Mussorgsky, there were still people coming in and being seated. Muti stared at them for a few moments and then SAT DOWN on the podium to wait! It was probably at least five minutes before everyone was seated.

    When Muti came on for the Strauss, he turned to the audience and gave the latecomers a well-deserved scolding. Of course, they shouldn’t have been let in until the first piece was over with anyway, but that was the ushers fault. Then add to that the usual coughs and sneezes you mentioned.

    Fortunately, Muti and the orchestra managed to rise above all that, and the performance was magnificent, especially the Bruckner 7.

  6. Posted Sep 28, 2016 at 11:15 am by Paul, Chicago

    It’s not just Chicago. NY is just as bad when it comes to coughing. And people are sheep: when one person starts coughing, it gives everyone else permission to start, as well. Embarrassing and unnecessary.

  7. Posted Sep 28, 2016 at 11:22 am by Jeff

    I am in accord with the concerns expressed about bad audience behavior, but I am becoming increasingly annoyed by the equally poor behavior coming from the stage–starting with the Music Director.

    Muti’s distracting antics in response to audience noise–which on Friday including stopping the orchestra and nasty glances over the shoulder–have become a fixture of his concerts. His tactics are as puerile as they are futile. But his disdain for the audience doesn’t stop there; another usual tactic of his is to begin works before the welcoming applause of the audience has subsided. It was egregious at the beginning of Don Juan on Friday.

    The musicians took a page from The Maestro’s playbook at the end of the concert by casually walking off stage while the de rigueur (whether deserved or not) standing ovation was ongoing. It is good for audience members to hold each other accountable for their shortcomings, but in my opinion, our love for what is being served up on stage should not be so unconditional–churlish behavior (and, yes, subpar performances) should not get a pass.

  8. Posted Sep 29, 2016 at 9:20 am by Steve

    It’s foolish and ignorant to equate the rude behavior of the audience with the reactions of Maestro Muti on the podium.

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