As a musicians strike looms, CSO returns to town with a routine outing 

Fri Mar 08, 2019 at 4:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas Angelich performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with James Feddeck conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On Thursday night the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ Piano Concerto, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist and the composer conducting. By all accounts the new work proved a huge success both musically and with the Boston audience.

The same night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned from yet another tour—this time to Florida—to offer an uninspired concert of Beethoven and Dvořák standards. What is wrong with this picture?

Granted, the CSO’s week was unsettled with conductor David Afkham pulling out of his concerts on short notice due to “family reasons,” and the orchestra having to scramble to find a replacement.

And while the timing is coincidental, it does point out certain trends that are increasingly hard to ignore.

While other American orchestras commission and present important new works from the major composers of our time, in the Muti era the CSO seems most focused on glitzy international and national touring—returning to Chicago only to fulfill subscription commitments with bland standard repertoire and await the next hyped-up return of its illustrious yet mercurial music director.

Muti clearly loves and has great respect for the CSO musicians, which appears to still be mutual after nearly a decade (administration and staff are another matter). Yet there is a persistent and growing perception among CSO subscribers and observers that the Italian conductor views Chicago audiences like annoying in-laws who have to be tolerated at holidays—rather than the hometown audience that should be getting the best and most thoughtful programming and the lion’s share of attention and respect.

The fact that all the woodwind principals except Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson were off once again this week adds to the perception of local audiences being taken for granted. It seems that these days the only way one can be guaranteed to hear a CSO performance with all the front-desk players on duty is to catch them out of town.


The feeling of Chicago audiences getting short shrift is bolstered by the looming musicians strike by CSO members, which is set to begin 3 p.m. Sunday if a new contract agreement is not reached by then. 

A timely settlement likely wasn’t made any easier by Muti’s siding publicly with the musicians. Letters from Muti were delivered Wednesday to CSO president Jeff Alexander and board chair Helen Zell—and later widely circulated by the musician union’s PR firm under the heading “Maestro Muti Supports the Musicians.” 

The letter read:

“As Music Director and a musician of this orchestra, I am with the Musicians. I understand their needs and how they should be treated, and the fact that they are among the best musicians in the world a crisis would damage the image of the institution. The Musicians themselves, the public and the entire musical world would be surprised to see the Orchestra in trouble.

I hope before my return in a few days, everything will be settled, giving the Musicians the recognition they deserve. I hope that the Board [of Trustees] will remember that theirs is not a job but a mission, and that tranquility and serenity will be given for the Artists to do their work.”

The CSO released a brief and conciliatory statement from Jeff Alexander a few hours later.

“We hold the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the highest regard and are working closely with their union representatives to come to an agreement on a new contract.  While their current contract is among the best in the country, we have offered improvements in salary and working conditions and look forward to finalizing the details with the union as soon as possible.”

The sides are said to be wide apart with very little movement since the strike date was announced three weeks ago.  All the signs point to a strike commencing Sunday as scheduled. 

The fact that the strike is timed to coincide almost immediately with the CSO’s return from another tour–at the end of the current contact extension–speaks volumes. Muti’s tours with the CSO are never imperiled by a strike action; his local Chicago concerts—clearly not as important.


Audience members must be grateful to James Feddeck for taking over a four-concert weekend on such short notice. Yet even with the best of goodwill, Thursday night’s concert wasn’t any more impressive than the young American conductor’s lackluster CSO debut in 2015.

The first half was devoted to Beethoven, leading off with the Coriolan Overture. Feddeck led a solid, middle-of-the-road reading that was sorely lacking in drama and urgency.

One hoped that the CSO debut of pianist Nicholas Angelich in Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto would pick things up, especially after the work’s last uninspired outing two years ago from a weak and ailing Radu Lupu.

Angelich appears to possess the technical arsenal for this music. The opening solo flourishes went with worthy strength and there were fitful moments where he seemed in synch with the concerto’s heroic qualities. Yet overall this was an uneven Beethoven performance. The American pianist’s passagework in the first movement was curiously stiff and the playing heavy. Rarely has this concerto sounded more stolid and Germanic.

The Adagio was poised and sensitively phrased by the soloist yet without distilling an essential raptness and repose. His early entrance apart, Angelich was at his best in the closing Rondo, playing with greater verve and bolstered by a more assertive accompaniment from Feddeck and the orchestra.

It was good to hear Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, rather than the two that followed. For many, the Czech composer’s Seventh is his finest work in the genre.

Yet no one hearing this work for the first time last night would likely feel the same way. With musicians on this level no performance is ever without strong moments–as with the brooding darkness mined in the Poco adagio and the undeniable energy kicked up in the finale.

But under Feddeck’s generalized direction, this was a disappointing Dvořák outing by any measure. The score was fatally undercharacterized with the essential contrasts between the bucolic and darkly dramatic ironed out. Even the finest and fastest thoroughbred racehorse needs a rider who knows what he’s doing to control and direct him.

Check back to CCR for strike updates this weekend.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wheaton College and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

14 Responses to “As a musicians strike looms, CSO returns to town with a routine outing ”

  1. Posted Mar 08, 2019 at 9:16 pm by Steve

    So, the works that Muti and the CSO present on tour, I would argue is not the “lion’s share of attention”, but rather the standard repertoire you refer to. Instead, I believe that “the most thoughtful programming and the lion’s share of attention and respect” is in fact given to the Chicago audiences. Just look at previous seasons (and the rest of this season): Verdi’s Otello/Macbeth/Falstaff, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Bruckner symphonies, and Verdi’s Aida in June…these are the best performances that Muti and the CSO give, and they are given right here in Chicago. We audience members should be appreciative that we get to hear these performances; I don’t believe we’re considered to be any less important in Muti’s eyes. However, the rest of the CSO season is rather subpar, and only some of the guest conductors that come to Chicago generate as much excitement that Muti does—Salonen comes to mind here.

    I do agree that the touring is a little excessive, but at the same time, I understand that the touring raises the orchestra’s global reputation, which is important to preserving the legacy of this orchestra. Although, I’m not sure what you’re suggesting about Muti and the administration/staff here…not good to breed speculation if there’s nothing concrete to say.

  2. Posted Mar 08, 2019 at 11:39 pm by Andrew

    Thank you for asking these tough questions, Mr. Johnson. This particular program is yet another “hard pass” for me in this (interminable) Muti era…

  3. Posted Mar 09, 2019 at 6:13 am by Tod Verklärung

    Steve’s defense of Mr. Muti might also serve as an inadvertent indictment. Of the seven works mentioned, four are Verdi operas and five are Italian. The CSO is not an Italian opera company and it is telling that Muti’s interpretive strength is too often confined to this repertoire.

    I agree with Steve’s view of the guest conductors invited here. We must remember, however, that Muti’s job is Music Director, not Principal Conductor. If the repertoire is lacking or the invited guests are not the finest, then he is responsible. There are many conductors, indeed, who might outshine the Maestro if only we were permitted to hear them regularly.

    Muti has maintained the technical and tonal greatness of the CSO, and this is to his credit. When he conducts, as Mr. Johnson points out, principal players are either required or replaced by visiting first-chair out-of-town alternates to some of the CSO second-chair musicians.

    I gather our orchestra must go to some expense to hire those musicians for short stints, something not afforded to guest conductors. Nor do Muti or the administration seem to worry about audience reaction when no such substitutions are made to benefit the leaders who occupy the podium in Muti’s absence.

  4. Posted Mar 09, 2019 at 1:28 pm by Bob Eisenberg

    As much as I usually agree with Mr. Johnson’s reviews, I am afraid I must disagree with your comments about the Thursday performance.

    To my mind, the playing of the woodwinds was much better than implied in your review. Indeed, I do not believe the principals could have done significantly better than what I heard: John Bruce Yeh played with the lyrical phrasing that has been his signature since the 1970s when I first heard him. Michael Henoch was at his considerable best, with beautiful even tone and of course perfectly in tune. The horn work was impeccable as well as magnificent; the string playing exceeds that of any orchestra that has ever played, as far as I can tell, in intonation, clarity, and beauty.

    We only have to listen to other famous orchestras (in recordings for example) to realize how much better intonation, tone quality, and ensemble playing is at the CSO than almost anywhere else, day in and night out. This is a routine we are blessed to have in our city.

    With thanks for your fine reviews,
    Bob Eisenberg

  5. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 7:34 am by Spencer Cortwright

    Let’s compare a widely considered great orchestra and its repertoire at this same time of year, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (I attend a concert of theirs every year). Two weeks ago they performed:
    Von Suppe Overture
    Schumann Piano Concerto
    Strauss Overture and dances

    Then a week of movie soundtracks and then
    Schumann Manfred Overture
    Liszt Piano Concerto #1
    Brahms Symphony #2

    Then upcoming:
    Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin
    Mozart Violin Concerto #3
    Sibelius Symphony #2

    By your standard this is horribly unimaginative programming. The CSO did:

    Schuman Symphony #9 Le Fosse Ardeatine (No one
    does this work)
    Mozart Requiem

    Note: This concert is part of a well-planned and excellent series commemorating 100th Anniversary of the Armistice (no other orchestra did this).

    Then intense tour of Florida

    Then the “boring” concert you describe and then
    upcoming a concert featuring less played Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto (every orchestra does RV443, no one does RV444) and a recent piccolo concerto by Benshoof.

    Your constant criticism of programming is specious and at best sophomoric. You have commendable insights on the music, please focus on them rather than your constant badgering.

  6. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 9:48 am by Andy Dichter

    What am I missing? I was at the Friday evening (3/8/19) concert at Wheaton College and thought it was great. Your review of Thursday’s performance was for the most part, quite negative. Was there an improvement on Friday or would both performances been reviewed the same? Did you attend both? What exactly would have made the Dvorak 7th better?

    Thanks much,
    Andy Dichter

  7. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 10:42 am by Roger Conner

    Unions do come up with bizarre slogans. The Chinese water snake actually does produce oil which is sold for its medicinal value. I wonder how long the wealthy donors on whose generosity the union members depend will be willing to put up with union greed. Maybe both sides should take a dose of snake oil. It’s $4.50 a bottle.

  8. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 11:03 am by Tipp Shipson

    1) Tours are not abnormal for an orchestra like the CSO. One domestic and one international is very standard. Perhaps it just feels like more because they’re close together.

    2) Some of the top orchestras have summer homes away from home.  CSO stays right here in Chicago.

    3) Musicians need a break at some point or another.  There are fewer woodwind players and it’s much more noticeable when a few are missing.

    4) Every orchestra has “filler” weeks.  It’s coincidental that this filler week happens to coincide with one of BSO’s more highlighted weeks. Cherry picking.

    Support your CSO and support its musicians.

  9. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 11:34 am by Tod Verklärung

    As an alternative to the timid programs the CSO presents too often, one might take a look at the details on the just-announced Cleveland Orchestra 2019/20season here:

    It includes Berg’s Lulu, Dvorak’s Symphony 4, Prokofiev’s Symphonies 2 & 6, Krenek, Schulhoff, Price’s Symphony 4, the new Ades Piano Concerto, the Janacek Sinfonietta, and Knussen’s Violin Concerto.

    Yes, Cleveland.

  10. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 1:21 pm by Roger Conner

    In ny previous message I spoke of “union greed.” I misspoke. Meant “union overreach.” On some occasions I have respected the picket line and on other occasions I have crossed it. This would be a time I would cross it if I were a CSO musician.

  11. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 2:51 pm by James Berland

    I was disappointed, as was Mr. Johnson, by the numerous absences of principals and acting principal players at this concert. One fact he didn’t mention was that not a single principal string player performed in the Beethoven Concerto. That is of course quite disturbing. I even emailed the CSO recently questioning the seeming disappearance of principal clarinet Stephen Williamson from recent performances. I was of course assured he would be returning immediately. Yet he was not there on Saturday. This raises a far more important question that no one has yet answered. What has happened to cause the exodus of CSO principals since the arrival of Muti?

    The orchestra has lost its principal flute to Berlin, its principal oboe to SF, its principal trumpet to NY and i’s principal bassoon and horn to retirement. Parenthetically Williamson left for NY as well but returned within a year.They have thus far been unable to secure a new principal trumpet and the horn position has been vacant for about five years. One has to ask, what’s going on here to cause this very worrisome problem?

  12. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 4:24 pm by Tipp Shipson

    Principals may have had time off approved in close proximity to a very tiresome couple of months of work. Many of them teach and may have makeup hours piled up from being out of town for over a month since the new year. (You know, fleeing Chicago so as to stay far away from its intentionally neglected audiences). This is also not to mention that assistant and associate positions are hired with greater discrepancy and paid over scale to fill leadership absences at an appropriately high level.

    As far as I understand, the principals leaving has nothing to do with Muti whatsoever. In fact relating their exits to his appointment is more akin to conspiracy theory than reality. If it’s hard to understand why a musician would leave for the Berlin Philharmonic or that retirements are saved for and taken without regard to a music director, then please buy a jumbo sized roll of tin foil at Costco because you’re going to be making a lot of hats.

  13. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 9:18 pm by Mark

    I was at the Saturday performance and I generally agree with Mr. Johnson. This was not a soloist that I’d want to hear again, and there was too much bombast and not enough subtlety in the Dvorak. However, I thought that the conducting was good enough in the first half. For whatever reason, the conductor eschewed his Cleveland Orchestra refined experience in the Dvorak and the result was disappointing, The CSO is generally excellent in Dvorak, and my reservations were with the corporate approach and not the lack of principal players. David Afkham probably would have done a better job. Not every conductor has his level of confidence and command at such a young age.

    In a world class orchestra, there should be high caliber playing below the principals. I thought that this was in abudence on a Saturday and generally credit Muti for making improvements to the CSO, particularly in the winds. Yes, the principal horn slot remains open, but the same is true in Cleveland. When the remaining talent is so deep, there’s no reason to settle before the right person is found.

    I’ve never been a big fan of Muti’s programs overall, but it’s a bit unfair to blame him for the results of the last concert. His willingness to perform new works is commendable and has resulted in some of his best performances.

  14. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 11:13 pm by James Berland

    To Mr Shipson

    Eugene Izotov didn’t leave to join the Berlin Phil, but rather The SF Symphony; Chris Martin left to join the NY Phil and neither orchestra is generally considered more prestigious than the CSO. In the case of the principal horn position 5 years have passed and the position is still unfilled. How come no qualified replacement has successfully auditioned in all that time? I have been a CSO subscriber for 45 years and I can’t remember a single principal player iduring that time leaving to join another orchestra until the very recent past.

    Incidentally I never posited Muti as the cause of these events only that they were coincident in time to his presence. Your snide reference to aluminum foil hats notwithstanding I think it is fair to ask why this is happening? Smug insults are never a substitute for intelligent dialogue assuming one is capable of such things.

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