Muti opens his final CSO weeks with a mixed program

Fri May 12, 2023 at 11:22 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Wagner, Rachmaninoff and Jessie Montgomery Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti returned to town Thursday night to open his final residency as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The 81-year-old Italian conductor will lead five of the seven weeks remaining in the CSO’s current season, a farewell stand that will culminate with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Thursday’s concert marked Muti’s first appearance with the orchestra since February and offered three things that have been relative rarities in the conductor’s 13-year Chicago tenure: Wagner, a world premiere and a work that is new to his repertoire.

The evening began with the Overture to Tannhäuser. One of Wagner’s finest curtain-raisers, the overture effectively sets the musical stage for the title knight’s moral conflict, torn between the sensual allure of Venus and the pure spiritual love of Elisabeth.

Muti led a stately, atmospheric reading that was characteristically attentive to dynamics, as with the noble pianissimo horns in the opening iteration of the Pilgrim’s March. If not the most exciting Wagner one will ever hear, this was a refined, weighty reading, with the sonorous trombones making bracing impact at the coda. 

Jessie Montgomery’s Transfigure to Grace was the centerpiece of the evening, heard in its world premiere. 

The second of three CSO commissions from the orchestra’s current composer in residence, this 15-minute work was retooled from Passage, a chamber dance score that was inspired by the polemical 1619 Project. Montgomery’s note in the score states that the new work echoes “themes of water and transformation” from the ballet piece and, more broadly, reflects “an unfinished chapter in our journey toward equality and grace of humankind.”

Though subtitled “Suite for Orchestra,” the work unfolds in what feels like a single movement. A seesawing figure for violins sets an air of anticipatory mystery, soon echoed by an emphatic two-note motif in the cellos. The music grows turbulent, segueing into a Glassian motoric section for strings, followed by a horn solo in a peaceful, searching idyll. The primary music returns and grows in tempo and brilliance with glittering percussion. The horn solo is reprised and, amid more pulsing riffs, there is a lyrical violin solo, and the music seems to be hurtling toward a brassy, optimistic coda, only to be prematurely cut off.

While Transfigure to Grace is a worthy listen, the new work isn’t as immediately compelling as Hymn for Everyone, Montgomery’s first CSO composition, which debuted a year ago. Her string writing is deft and idiomatic befitting her experience as a violinist. Yet the seams here are more apparent and the composer’s scoring for winds and brass feels less assured, grafted somewhat awkwardly on top of the string lines.

The premiere was scrupulously prepared and Muti led an exacting, well-balanced performance, with worthy solo contributions by hornist Dan Gingrich and concertmaster Robert Chen.

There have been some superb events at Orchestra Hall in recent months marking Rachmaninoff’s 150th anniversary year, including Evgeny Kissin in the Russian composer’s solo piano works and, especially, Daniil Trifonov’s blockbuster account of the Third Piano Concerto.

Thursday’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 wasn’t one of them. 

Rachmaninoff’s symphony received bad press for decades, in no small part due to its being performed in heavily cut versions. But this is a marvelous work, consummately crafted and chockablock in expansive melody with visceral emotional appeal for audiences, both veterans and novices alike. 

In his first performance anywhere of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Muti brought typical refinement, dynamic alertness and skillful balancing, some raucous tuttis apart.

Yet, oddly for a conductor who is so convincing in Russian composers like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, Muti seemed less at home in the rich, surging Romanticism that is at the core of Rachmaninoff’s art.

The large opening movement began well with the brooding darkness that will lead eventually to bright light and triumph in the finale. Yet Muti’s tempo, while just fractionally slower than the Allegro moderato marked, repeatedly sacrificed momentum and—unusually for this conductor—dramatic tension. The result was a lumbering opening movement that set the scene for a heavy-footed and strangely Teutonic performance.

Further, the conductor kept a tight rein on Rachmaninoff’s melodic riches, tamping down the soaring middle theme of the second movement and especially the warm-hearted lyricism of the Adagio. Stephen Williamson still made the expansive clarinet solo an expressive highlight and Muti duly built the lyrical waves to an imposing climax.

There were spirited moments in the finale but here too the slowings felt drawn out and the music-making had a hectoring quality—falling into the Barenboim habit of dawdling over passing details at the expense of crucial momentum. By the time the hour-plus performance finally reached the jubilant coda, one felt more a sense of relief than exhilaration.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Posted in Performances

9 Responses to “Muti opens his final CSO weeks with a mixed program”

  1. Posted May 12, 2023 at 11:32 am by Brad

    Thank you for making me feel I wasn’t alone regarding the Rachmaninov. During the first movement, I started to have the concern I would die of old age and need to be removed from the hall. Luckily, I survived and left on my own power, but I was ready for the concert to be over.

    I very rarely feel that way, especially in a piece like this that I quite like.

  2. Posted May 12, 2023 at 1:28 pm by Stephanie

    I completely agree with this review. It was a very dull concert, which has become the norm when Muti is here.

  3. Posted May 12, 2023 at 6:57 pm by Thomas Rudd

    The Montgomery sucked. Typical DEI music never to be heard again.

    The Rach 2nd was GREAT. Beautifully played. The strings sounded like Philly orch under Stokowski. Don’t listen to the critics. Go hear the Rach. It’s great under Muti.

  4. Posted May 12, 2023 at 8:44 pm by Rupert

    The Wagner was so, so weak. Let’s hope in the new season, from November on.

  5. Posted May 13, 2023 at 9:31 am by Mark L

    Over the years, under this music director, the orchestra has been playing with ever decreasing emotional participation and it has become completely self referential. Everything feels artificial and distant.

  6. Posted May 13, 2023 at 8:26 pm by Tyree Mason, CS

    Godspeed to Riccardo Muti! May your future endeavors be kind to you as the past ones.

  7. Posted May 13, 2023 at 11:15 pm by Dileep Gangolli

    Thank God I dodged a bullet and avoided hearing this concert.

    I can’t think of a worse combination. Muti and Rachmaninoff.

    Baseball season we need you desparately.

  8. Posted May 17, 2023 at 10:02 am by Jeff R

    Tuesday night’s show was a bore, however, a well attended bore… better than 75% full on a Tuesday night.

    Muti stopped the Montgomery piece about 10 seconds in and told the crowd something about needing to be quiet on the main floor. Never saw him do that.

    There is excitement and intensity missing from Muti’s performances. The CSO seems very restrained. I agree with most of the critical appraisals… I’m ready for a new Maestro for sure!

  9. Posted May 17, 2023 at 10:37 am by niloiv

    The program book mocks critics back in the day who thought Rach was outdated, but unfortunately that’s just how I feel about his music (Sym. 2 from Muti, Paganini Rhapsody and Symphonic Dances from Shani, even the Trifonov PC.3 wasn’t near a season top 3 for me).

    But as mentioned above, Muti simply fills the hall. And this would and should be a big considering when picking next MD. For example, I was deeply impressed by Jurowski’s Shostakovich a couple weeks ago, but the attendance was just embarrassing.

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