Muti closes CSO fall residency with Hindemith, Mussorgsky

Sat Oct 15, 2016 at 3:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

John Sharp performed Schumann's Cello Concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
John Sharp performed Schumann’s Cello Concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The third and final week of Riccardo Muti’s fall residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered three programs in as many days, with some repertorial overlap among them. On Thursday night, Muti led an all-Beethoven community outreach event at the Apostolic Church of God on the South Side, and the annual Gala Ball concert takes place tonight with reigning Russian keyboard phenom Daniil Trifonov as featured soloist.

The middle subscription program, heard Friday night at Orchestra Hall, amounted largely to brush-up for repertory featured on the CSO’s January European tour, with two of the three works (by Hindemith and Mussorgsky) conducted by Muti in Chicago just a year ago.

Still, if there was little new for Chicago audiences at Friday night’s concert, any sense of routine was avoided with the CSO music director and the orchestra at their considerable finest even in a busy week.

The single new item to Muti’s Chicago repertory Friday was Dvorak’s Husitska Overture which led off the evening. Composed in 1883 for the reopening of Prague’s National Theatre after a fire, the patriotic work incorporates two Hussite songs, which Dvorak mines with characteristic flair and ingenuity. Muti elicited gracious wind playing, negotiated the tempo changes deftly and brought majestic grandeur to the main Hussite theme, the overture rounded off with ample brilliance and martial swagger. An enthusiastic audience member on the main floor offered his personal congratulations to Muti at his curtain call, with the bemused maestro smiling and shaking his hand.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto was the evening’s solo vehicle with John Sharp in the spotlight, who is marking three decades as the CSO’s principal cellist this year. While Sharp has been a sturdy first-desk leader in a prominent position for decades, his solo appearances have been more mixed, and so it proved again. 

At times Sharp’s unflashy style seemed well suited to Schumann’a more intimately scaled concerto, as with the lyrical passages of the outer movements and, especially, the inward reverie of the middle section.

Yet ultimately the performance suffered from a fatal lack of fire and intensity, feeling more like a relaxed read-through then a live concert. Sharp’s low-energy solo work consistently underplayed Schumann’s nervous energy and virtuosity, and had some shaky moments in the bravura closing section. Muti and Sharp’s colleagues tried to inject some vitality into the proceedings with little success.

Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass is one of his most likable and regularly performed works. The German composer’s densely contrapuntal music can seem like note-spinning in an unsuccessful search for a melody, but Muti brought a jaunty swagger and transparency to Hindemith’s score that eliminated the grayness. Fugal passages had notable bite and vigor and there was superb solo playing from trombonist Jay Friedman and trumpet Christopher Martin, the latter back in his old chair again on a week’s leave from his current position with the New York Philharmonic. (A CSO spokeswoman confirmed that Martin will return to Chicago to play several Muti programs this season.)

Maurice Ravel’s popular orchestration of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition has been a favored showpiece for the CSO as well as its current music director from the beginning of his career. With its brilliant scoring and numerous solo opportunities, the confection will make a fine showpiece for the orchestra musicians on their European tour.

With Chris Martin’s pealing trumpet in the Promenade theme, Muti opened Friday with a notably brisk gallery walk. Even in this warhorse perennial–recorded seven times by the CSO–Muti’s acute balancing uncovered several felicitous details in Ravel’s scoring that usually remain buried.

The conductor seemed impatient with J. Michael Holmes’s expressive and stately rendition of the saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” for some reason, and there was a surprisingly unsteady tuba solo in “Bydlo.” Otherwise the portraits of Victor Hartmann’s gallery received notably vivid and well-characterized treatment, from the uninhibited chirping of the “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells”–eliciting chuckles from the audience–to the brooding bleakness of “Catacombs.”

The punchy intensity of the brass and percussion in Baba-Yaga gave us a witch who really meant business. As in previous outings, Muti built the final “Great Gate of Kiev” patiently, from an understated, heavy-footed opening to a resplendent coda, while underlining the Orthodox wind coloring in the alternating section.

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

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