Muti returns to CSO with Uchida playing Beethoven and a premiere by Adams (not that one)

Fri Mar 17, 2017 at 1:43 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mitsuko Uchida acknowledges applause after her performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.
Mitsuko Uchida acknowledges applause after her performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Riccardo Muti returned this week to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a varied program that included the world premiere of Samuel Adams’ many words of love Thursday night.

Adams is currently in the middle year of his three-season term as Chicago Symphony co-composer in residence, and this CSO commission is his first work to be performed by the orchestra. 

Spanning 20 minutes, many words of love was inspired by Wilhelm Müller’s poem, “Der Lindenbaum,” famously set by Schubert in his tragic song cycle Winterreise. Thematically, Adams says he was attracted to the contradiction of the heartfelt words of love being carved into a tree by the ill-fated protagonist as well as a more 21st-century environmental attitude about the “violent and tender” qualities of the act. That contrast is likewise reflected in the tension between his resources, exploring the intersection of natural acoustical music and “digitally produced artificial resonance.”

A loud dissonant chord opens the three-section work and for the ensuing 20 minutes the music proceeds in heaving waves. There are some intriguing sonorities—the shimmering sound of  “nipple gongs” amid the vast percussion battery and a stentorian brass fanfare, which peals forth with daunting power.

But ultimately Adams’ work seemed lumbering, gestural and rather empty. The scoring is far too heavy and needlessly complicated, with dubious instrumental complexities for the players, most of which barely registered in live performance.

At 31, Adams has barely a dozen works to his name–and very few for orchestra. As in previous works, one gets the sense of a young composer who has yet to find his compositional voice and the means to realize it effectively in both the working out and the orchestration. Muti led the orchestra in a forceful and dedicated performance, clarifying Adams’ swirling textures as much as possible.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 followed and, coming immediately after Adams’ work, this is one time when no one is going to complain about Schumann’s thick orchestration.

The Fourth, amazingly, has not been performed by the CSO in 14 years, which is hard to believe for such cornerstone repertory. Schumann’s quirky, restless Romanticism fits the CSO’s mercurial maestro well, and Muti led a vital and full-bodied performance. Robert Chen’s gracious violin solos highlighted the Romanza, and the Scherzo went with charged impetus, the trio’s descending phrases gently contrasted. Characteristically, Muti made the transition into the finale a high point, with careful control of dynamics and anticipation creating tension before the burst of sun-like brightness in the main theme.

Thursday marked another installment in this season’s series of the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida as soloist in the Concerto No. 3 in C minor.

Muti has been casting against type in this series with Yefim Bronfman in the lightly scored Fourth Concerto and now Uchida in the stormy, minor-key Third.

Uchida is beloved locally for her long-running Mozart series with the CSO, conducting concertos from the keyboard. Yet, for the most part, she proved just as convincing in Beethoven’s more dramatic work. Her playing was fluent and polished if perhaps more Classical in style then one usually hears in this Romantic music. Despite a litany of loud, unmuffled coughs from Philistines in the audience, her solo phrasing in the Adagio was rapt and otherworldly, and she brought similarly spacious, inward expression to the cadenzas. Others may serve up more muscle in the finale but Uchida’s nimble touch and witty dynamic marking provided its own rewards.

A healthy creative tension surfaced intermittently between Uchida’s lingering, fantasia style and Muti’s bold tuttis and forward momentum. But for the most part they proved simpatico partners, with the CSO’s music director supplying well-groomed, attentive accompaniment.

Muti opened the evening with the Overture to Rossini’s opera La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder). The CSO’s music director is without peer in his compatriot’s curtain raisers and Muti led a fleet, witty performance with whirling strings and chattering woodwinds that was wholly delightful.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Edman Memorial Chapel in Wheaton, and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Orchestra Hall.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Muti returns to CSO with Uchida playing Beethoven and a premiere by Adams (not that one)”

  1. Posted Mar 17, 2017 at 10:46 pm by Salvador Gonzalez

    I also did not find the point of presenting Adams work clearly not polished enough for a public concert. Beethoven and Schumann were interesting: firstly, the orchestra sound is far from the beautiful Viennese sound that the works demand, the string sound is not lush. I saw tension between Muti literally acting Schumann symphony to inspire the orchestra (marking, softer, lighter, etc) which must have frustrated him as the CSO performance was quite ordinary… I had never before seen Muti conduct CSO with such mimics.

  2. Posted Mar 18, 2017 at 12:11 am by Dave

    A Sam Adams beer would have been much more memorable than this piece. Until composers like Adams learn to engage audiences on an emotional, as well as intellectual level, directionless works like this one will continue to be premiered and quickly forgotten. Some critics give Muti a hard time for not programming many new works. Well, most of them are generic and pointless like this one, so it’s hard to blame him.

  3. Posted Mar 18, 2017 at 11:41 am by Tod Verklärung

    Sam Adams was Muti’s choice to be a composer-in-residence. There are other 20th and 21st century composers who might change the audience’s mind about the value of relatively recent works. Unfortunately, they are not often programmed by the CSO.

  4. Posted Mar 19, 2017 at 7:53 pm by Tod Verklärung

    I heard the Sunday repeat and will add a few words. First, the Beethoven Concerto was glorious. The soloist married imaginative phrasing with an ability to “float” the end of the first movement and most of the second, as if time had stopped. In this was she made me think of a pianistic Furtwängler.

    I agree with Mr. Johnson regarding the Adams piece. The sonority in his sheets of sound were unusual, but the work neither had a sense of direction, nor did it draw this listener into a captivating, Feldman-like stasis.

    The Music Director’s accompaniment of the Beethoven was spot-on, and his Rossini Overture splendid, with the one quibble that the famous Rossini crescendos are more effective if begun with less volume than Muti has achieved recently.

    The Schumann Symphony #4, however, revealed why Muti’s recent conducting of standard repertoire is much less to my taste than in his Philadelphia years. His performances in Chicago of many works (Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, Prokofiev Symphony #3, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Mendelssohn Symphony #5, and now the Schumann) have been more careful than in his younger days, more atomized, lacking the sweep, ardor, and frisson of renditions I heard from give going as far back as his Philadelphia debut as a guest conductor. Of course, it may that I am looking for sparks and Muti is looking for balance. Still, the concert left me glowing because of the Beethoven, and one must give Muti his due for the wonderful collaboration and the invitation to Uchida to join him in this masterpiece.

  5. Posted Mar 22, 2017 at 2:44 pm by Paul Cohan

    People fear new music. In no other art form is there such built-in resistance to the new.

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