A world premiere and powerful Bruckner from Muti and CSO

Fri Sep 29, 2017 at 1:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti congratulates Elizabeth Ogonek following the world premiere of "All These Lighted Things" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti congratulates Elizabeth Ogonek following the world premiere of “All These Lighted Things” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Those who want to catch Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra best head over to Michigan Avenue posthaste.

After opening the orchestra’s season last weekend, the CSO music director is leading just one more program this week before taking the same music on the road for a West Coast tour. Muti will be back for one week in November before returning for another single week in February–before then taking that program on tour to the East Coast. So, if you would like to attend a Muti concert with the CSO in the next five months you’ll have more opportunities to do so in California, New York or Florida then you will in Chicago.

Rossini’s William Tell Overture–performed at last week’s CSO Ball–led off Thursday’s subscription concert. Muti is hard to beat in his native repertory, as he showed once again, creating an epic tone poem out of the curtain-raiser to Rossini’s final opera. Principal John Sharp and the cello section opened the overture with beautifully burnished playing, maintaining hushed concentration despite loud phlegm-clearing from a bevy of rude and/or clueless audience members. Muti whipped up a Hurricane Maria-sized tempest in the storm music, with Scott Hostetler’s ensuing English horn solo virtually sketching the Alpine peaks in sound, gracefully echoed by Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson’s pastoral flute.

The celebrated gallop finale was shorn of sonic bombast, with the unbridled excitement coming from transparency and rhythmic precision rather than gratuitous speed or volume. Clearly in a good mood, Muti motioned for the applause to quiet to add a spoken aside that the famous tune in the finale reflected the opera’s revolutionaries “protesting against a dictator.” Just when one thought he was about to make a contemporary political allusion, he quickly said, “And it has nothing to do with the Lone Ranger!” getting a laugh before exiting the stage.

Over his seven years as music director in Chicago, the Italian maestro’s forays into new music have been selective at best. Yet this season Muti is conducting three world premieres by American composers, the first of which was heard Thursday night with All These Lighted Things by Elizabeth Ogonek.

The CSO’s co-composer in residence often takes her inspiration from literary texts and does so again here, the title coming from a poem about the dawn by Thomas Merton. As reflected in the 14-minute work’s subtitle, “three little dances for orchestra,” Ogonek says that she wanted to write something in a lighter vein for change: “At the heart of the piece is celebration and reverence for the things that bring joy.”

All These Lighted Things, Ogonek’s first CSO commission, is scored for large forces, with the seemingly obligatory vast percussion battery including rainsticks, vibraslap, Chinese opera gongs, Japanese singing bowls and egg shaker.

The first dance begins quietly in high shimmering percussion segueing into rapid, Webern-like bursts of restless, fragmented activity—a pair of jocular clarinets, beast-like lowing from timpani and lower brass and a burst of metallic percussion. The music seems to be jumpily searching for a center of gravity before slowly fading out on the quiet notes of a marimba.

The second dance provides contrast with long, undulating string lines, amid some pitch-bending turns and a schmaltzy violin solo. The brief final section is an off-kilter scherzo with nervous phrases and jazz-accented syncopations—a kind of chemically addled Sorcerer’s Apprentice–that whirls about before closing on an extended dissonant chord.

Ogonek is a gifted composer as shown by her previous works heard in Chicago. Her chamber violin concerto In Silence, premiered at MusicNOW last May, is a small masterpiece.

Yet Ogonek has composed little for full orchestra to date and the creative fires burn less brightly in All These Lighted Things. Like many young composers with minimal orchestra experience, one gets the sense of Ogonek stitching together offbeat sounds and disparate colors that offer some striking sonic effects yet lack a sense of direction and overall development–even in the brief spans of three short movements. 

Despite the stated optimistic inspiration, All These Lighted Things is not especially vibrant or engaging, feeling more like a relentless barrage of edgy musical effects in a fruitless search for an underlying purpose. One gets the impression that Ogonek is one of those musicians–like Renée Fleming–who seems to do sad much more convincingly than happy.

Muti and the orchestra gave this premiere their considerable all, though the conductor’s high-beam attention to balancing and dynamics had the unwonted effect of shining a spotlight on the score’s deficiencies.

Muti has been gradually working his way through the Bruckner canon over his CSO tenure. He opened the orchestra’s season a year ago with the Seventh Symphony and has also performed Nos. 1, 2, 6 and 9. A live recording of the Ninth was released earlier this year on the CSO’s house label.

This week Muti turned to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4–redundantly titled “Romantic,” which could apply to any of the Austrian composer’s works. The Fourth is among Bruckner’s most optimistic symphonies, which makes it more attractive for some and repetitious and dull to others.

Thursday’s performance had all the handprints of Muti’s previous Bruckner outings: impeccable balancing, scrupulous attention to dynamic nuances, tempo fluctuations and scoring details.

Yet there is a kind of gauche rusticity in Bruckner that tends to resist Muti’s brand of laser-like textual fidelity. While the notes and details were all there in high relief, the score’s lyric charm and spiritual warmth were less evident.

If this performance didn’t always get to the heart of the music, Muti’s architectural command ensured that the ultimate goal was always in view and the precipice reached in patient fashion, strong in cumulative impact. With impassioned, committed advocacy by the CSO, the score’s dramatic peaks were undeniably brilliant and powerful. Some fleeting imprecisions apart, the brass playing was largely magnificent, with Daniel Gingrich lifting a noble horn solo to start the epic, 70-minute journey.

Besides the estimable Gingrich, the other empty principal chairs were filled capably by oboist Alexander Vvedenskiy and trumpet Mark J. Inouye, principals from the Louisville Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony, respectively.

Only the second week of the season and the loud, unmuffled coughing from audience Philistines is already in high gear. During a hushed string passage in the slow movement of the Bruckner symphony, one hacking patron provoked Muti to wheel around as he conducted and give a death-ray glare to the right side of the lower balcony.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “A world premiere and powerful Bruckner from Muti and CSO”

  1. Posted Sep 29, 2017 at 1:33 pm by Spencer

    Commenting on the coughing….it seemed as if some folks were trying mightily to cough as loud as possible during the quietest of passages. Who are these people who think that the most blasting cough possible is ok?

  2. Posted Sep 29, 2017 at 2:02 pm by Andrew

    I absolutely agree that all the coughing at this concert was outrageous. Even worse, an overhead PA speaker was malfunctioning in the upper balcony, and it was blasting snippets of recorded symphonic greatest hits while the concert was going on! The poor ushers had to placate several irate audience members.

  3. Posted Sep 29, 2017 at 2:22 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    I asked a CSO representative what that noise was and she said she had no information on it. Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Posted Oct 03, 2017 at 7:13 pm by CHarles Amenta

    I thought more of the Ogonek piece than you did. It’s pretty fine for a set of dances. I had more the sense of “Song,” “Meditation,” and “Dance.” The almost Spanish-sounding melody with its turn figure repeats frequently and seems the true center of the movement. All the percussion are colorful distractions–maybe there’s a metaphor there of modern life. The second movement has that same turn in augmentation. The final movement has more of a linear melody (all the melodies are singable which is a nice, retro factor). As the movement advances, the forces increase and pile together in a chord that reminds one of the Mahler 10th–but then it devolves into the same high tinkly sounds that opened the set

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