Muti leads CSO in a belated, balletic New Year’s Day program

Fri Jan 21, 2022 at 11:43 am

By Tim Sawyier

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Tchaikovsky, Reznicek and Johann Strauss Jr. Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There can be a moment of trepidation when a conductor takes the stage with a microphone. Has a star soloist canceled? Has a longtime orchestra member passed away? Has there been some world catastrophe that hasn’t come through on the iPhone? 

While these thoughts did race when Riccardo Muti took the Orchestra Hall stage at Thursday night’s CSO concert, mic in hand, the Italian maestro actually just wanted to share a few words about the program he had selected.

After congratulating the audience on the love of music they showed by braving the frigid temperatures for a concert, Muti said he wanted to clarify that though the two Tchaikovsky ballet suites and lighter Viennese fare on the program are engaging and melodic, they are not “easy” music. He emphasized that while accessible, these works place considerable demands on the players, an aspect that was captured in the ensuing performances.

Muti also contrasted the evening’s scores with (unspecified) “deep” music that “puts people to sleep,” but gladdens critics by giving them something to write about. He snipingly added that critics do this despite not having studied the scores in advance, and greeted the audience’s laughter by saying that, at 80 years old, he can say what he wants. (Critics also don’t mind pre-concert speeches that double as ledes.) After some closing utopian words about the need for governmental support of arts and culture to improve society, the concert began.

The evening started with Emil Reznicek’s Overture to Donna Diana, a four-minute romp not heard at Orchestra Hall for over 25 years. Even in his lifetime (1860-1945), Reznicek’s entire reputation rested on this infectious curtain-raiser. Muti led a beguiling account Thursday night, bringing out the busy score’s subtleties and projecting its winking aesthetic.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Tchaikovsky’s suites from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake were the meat of the program, with the former first on offer. Muti and colleagues clearly enjoyed capturing the lavish melodic richness of Tchaikovsky’s earliest ballet music, even if his approach at times was more emphatic than charming.  In the Introduction strings were at times too loud for solo wind lines to come through, and while the ensuing Adagio was aptly ardent, climaxes were overpowering rather than robust. (This was an issue in Muti’s October outing of the Russian composer’s Sixth Symphony as well.)

The CSO winds were at their nimblest in the jazzy “Puss in Boots and the White Cat,” which Muti punctuated with a cat-paws gesture from the podium. He sensitively sculpted the seemingly endless melody of the “Panorama,” and the timeless “Waltz” had grace to spare.

Principal oboe William Welter, now fully at home at the helm of the woodwind section, glowingly sang the expansive solo in the opening “Scene” from Swan Lake, answered in stentorian fashion by the CSO horns. In the familiar ensuing “Waltz,” Muti often stopped conducting, making minimal playful indications for emphasis. Winds were piquant and strings coy in the “Dance of the Swans.”

As Muti mentioned in his opening remarks, there was heavy lifting to be done by a number of front desk players. Katherine Siochi from the Kansas City Symphony was guest principal harp, and seemed to fit in seamlessly, subtly adding to tutti textures and contributing graceful cadenzas. Robert Chen and John Sharp were lyrical partners in the Suite’s second “Scene,” and principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh played with typical poise throughout. The one exception Thursday night was principal trumpet Estaban Batallán, who was uncharacteristically shaky in the Neapolitan Dance, wavering at the outset and cracking the top of a run.

The evening closed with the autumnal and evergreen Emperor Waltz of Johann Strauss, Jr. Muti led the opening with the utmost delicacy, and gave the entire score august, ennobled treatment, evoking the atmosphere of Vienna’s Musikverein on New Year’s Day in the best possible way.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.

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One Response to “Muti leads CSO in a belated, balletic New Year’s Day program”

  1. Posted Jan 22, 2022 at 4:34 pm by Charlie

    When Muti takes the microphone, there is no moment of trepidation. We know that he’s going to deliver a mix of platitudes and cheap shots. Insufferable.

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