A young pianist debuts with CSO, as Muti leads a mixed program

Fri Oct 07, 2022 at 12:00 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Franck, Mozart and Mussorgsky Thursday night. Photo: Anne Ryan

Riccardo Muti’s final autumn as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continued Thursday at Orchestra Hall with a program of Franck, Mozart, and Mussorgsky. While the notably eager applause that greeted the 81-year-old maestro conveyed an awareness that his time with the orchestra is drawing to a close, Thursday’s performances overall proved a mixed affair.

2022 has been César Franck’s bicentennial year, and the concert opened with an informal celebration by way of the French-Belgian’s tone poem Le chausseur maudit (“The Cursed Hunter”).

The opening horn calls showed the CSO section at its most burnished, and Muti drew regal sostenuto playing in the sweeping opening theme. The galloping hunt portion had ample menace, though at times Muti allowed the brass sections to dominate in a manner more blaring than forceful. Muti and the orchestra captured the disorientation and panic of the moment in the score when the hunter finds himself alone, before rushing headlong through the final demonic pursuit.

The program temporarily set the infernal aside as the evening continued with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595. The composer’s final work in the genre, it was also the vehicle for 24-year-old Eric Lu’s CSO debut. Winner of the 2018 Leeds Competition and a Curtis alum, Lu was a late substitution for the ailing Maurizio Pollini.

Eric Lu performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 Thursday night. Photo: Anne Ryan

Lu looks far younger than his age yet played with a maturity beyond his 24 years. The opening Allegro went with poise and grace, with Muti and his young soloist remaining sensitively attuned to the score’s passing darker hues. Lu captured the fragile poetry of the Larghetto’s unassuming theme, but one also felt there were greater depths to mine in this music than Lu found Thursday night.

The concluding Allegro was genial and smiling, with eloquent contributions from guest principal flute Yevgeny Faniuk (Princeton Symphony) and principal oboe William Welter. Lu’s playing here was pristine, yet again often literal, with some of the movement’s charm and humor failing to come across. Still, if this Mozart outing proved more earthbound than revelatory, Lu is clearly headed for a successful career, and it will be interesting to watch as his already considerable artistry continues to develop.

The evening concluded with Ravel’s well-known orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at Exhibition. Principal trumpet Esteban Batallán was in fine form from first bar to last. His gleaming opening “Promenade” though was followed by a “Gnomus” with many ensemble issues as Muti almost casually beat through the movement. The Chicago-based Michael Holmes brought a murky, bardic air to the saxophone solo in “The Old Castle.” The woodwind section—with principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson back in his chair—was playfully nagging in “Tuileries,” and also made excellent baby birds in “The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells.”

Michael Mulcahy gave a mournful rendition of the euphonium solo in “Bydlo,” but again here Muti’s approach was too informal, missing the onerous feeling of Mussorgsky’s plodding oxen. He better captured the ponderous opening of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” in which Batallán’s playing was inspired. “Limoges” bustled under Muti’s direction, in great contrast to his suitably lurching reading of “Catacombs.”

The closing movements “Baba-Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” were highlights of the evening. The former had a precipitous, guttural force that recalled portions of the opening Franck, and Muti propelled the latter to great effect. It was hard not to hear the score’s noble closing pages independent of the ravages playing out around Kiev today, with the orchestra’s collective vehemence a moving statement of solidarity.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “A young pianist debuts with CSO, as Muti leads a mixed program”

  1. Posted Oct 07, 2022 at 11:42 pm by Howard C

    Had a crappy day at work and my car broke today but coming to the concert really made my day! There was fine playing throughout the orchestra but I must say: Esteban Batallan = perfecto in Pictures

  2. Posted Oct 08, 2022 at 6:35 pm by W. L. Weller

    I thought the Mozart on Friday night was elegantly played by soloist and orchestra. I didn’t feel that there were greater depths to be mined as the reviewer says.

    In Pictures, I thought Battalan’s playing was excellent and reminiscent of the glory days of the CSO brass. No offense to the current trumpet section, but I still miss the sound concept of Herseth and Scarlett.

  3. Posted Oct 09, 2022 at 2:30 pm by Michael Nee

    The Saturday CSO performance of Pictures at an Exhibition was nothing short of transcendent. Really. In all my years I have never experienced such an explosion from the audience once the piece was done. Everyone screaming, applauding, on their feet.

    Every single instrumentalist of note, and section, had to take their bow. Unbelievable brass. French horns, trumpets, trombones, all stars. The timpanist was stellar, and the rest of the percussion ensemble was likewise just brilliant. The strings, praise them. All rose to the occasion.

    Muti navigated the orchestra brilliantly through all of the variations, the moods, the dynamics, his tempos invariably on point. One of the most memorable concert experiences I’ve ever had. The only thing that comes close to my mind is having heard Steinberg with the Pittsburgh Symphony doing Mahler’s Resurrection at Carnegie Hall in 1968.

  4. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 11:47 am by Henry and Ellen Criz

    We agree on the Mozart. Maybe other nights were different. Pictures at an Exhibition was wonderful.

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