“American” program proves a mixed bag from Muti and CSO

Fri Apr 13, 2018 at 3:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Walker, Copland and Dvořák Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

When the current Chicago Symphony Orchestra  season was announced in January of last year, the press release made much hay out of the fact that Riccardo Muti was doing an “American program.” Never mind that the program in question, heard Thursday night, offered less than 20 minutes of music by American composers. Or that the Italian conductor’s idea of an American symphony is one written in the 19th century by a Czech composer while staying in New York.

Apart from short pieces (often with an Italian connection) and premieres from the CSO’s composers in residence, Muti has largely ignored American repertory since becoming music director of the orchestra in 2010.  This week’s belated acknowledgement of that omission is a somewhat promising sign.

Still, would it have been asking too much if, in the eighth season at the helm of one of the top U.S. orchestras, the CSO’s music director might have done a little digging into the vast wealth of neglected American symphonies to fill out the program rather than program a familiar Dvořák warhorse? Apparently.

George Walker’s Lyric for Strings was an easy choice for Muti to lead off the evening–attractive, approachable and five minutes long. Muti excels in these stringy miniatures and led a warmly focused performance, drawing refined, beautifully expressive string playing even by CSO standards. Walker, still with us at 95, has written a vast amount of music and one hopes that presenters someday will explore more of the American composer’s oeuvre beyond his “greatest hit.”

Lincoln Portrait is not the worst piece Aaron Copland ever wrote. But it’s pretty close. (Pride of place likely goes to the dreary Canticle of Freedom for chorus.)

John Malkovich was the narrator in Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There was something surreal about engaging John Malkovich as narrator for Lincoln Portrait. One almost longed for the great, famously intense Chicago actor to throw away the text’s more leaden banalities and burst into a profane Mamet-ian tirade from his Steppenwolf days. (“This is what he said. This is what &$@#% Abe Lincoln #%€£^ said! Okay, @$#*?!”)

That didn’t happen. In fact, if anything Malkovich’s reading of the text was well-behaved to a fault. The actor seemed miscast in this assignment and looked decidedly uncomfortable. (The overloud, disembodied amplification didn’t help either.)

Yet while more variety and engagement in his narration would have been beneficial, Malkovich brought a stoic Midwestern lack of fuss to his readings, which works better in this ceremonial piece than overdone grandiloquence.

As is often the case when he’s on less familiar repertorial ground, Muti was in turbocharged mode with whipcrack tuttis and a thunderous, bombastic coda that made it seem like Lincoln was exiting the Gettysburg battlefield by blasting off in a rocket ship.

What impressed most–more than Copland’s humdrum music or the musicians’ fine playing–was the extraordinary eloquence of Lincoln’s words.

One expected greater success after intermission with the CSO’s music director on more comfortable European turf in Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9.

Yet Muti’s first CSO performance of the Czech composer’s symphony “From the New World” was surprisingly routine. Predictably, the dramatic outer movements were most successful, fiery and driven if somewhat relentless.

Thursday’s performance under Muti bore an uncanny resemblance to Georg Solti’s 1983 CSO concert performances and subsequent Decca recording, for good and ill. As with Solti, what was lacking was a compensating sense of lyric tenderness and heart-easing nostalgia. There was little warmth or affection in the direction or in most of the playing. That absence was most manifest in Muti’s coolly chiseled approach to the famous Largo, in which Scott Hostetler’s blandly generic English horn solo was similarly all on the surface.

Elsewhere the playing was committed and largely polished, some brass fluffs apart. Stephen Williamson’s personality-plus clarinet solos were a standout–a welcome center of gravity in a still-unsettled wind section.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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