Opening night magic with Muti and the CSO

M.L. Rantala | September 30, 2021

Riccardo Muti ascended the conductor’s podium on the Symphony Center stage last week for the first time since February 2020. The audience reacted with thunderous applause, mixed with cheers and welcoming whistles. Folks who had presented proof of vaccination outside the building and came ready with masks were delighted at the opportunity to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in action again.

Muti’s opening concert of the season did not disappoint them.

The main work on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, but before that there were two works never before performed by the CSO, both written by Black composers.

The evening began with the Overture to “L’Amant anonyme”, an opera composed in 1780 by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799). Saint-Georges was the son of a white French plantation owner and a Senegalese slave who became a top-notch fencer and later a violinist, conductor, impresario, and composer in France. His work had not previously been performed by the CSO.

The overture was given star treatment, with buoyant and energetic sound from the first note. Muti found all the triumph in the score as well as the joy. The strings had sheen, the harpsichord tingled, and the winds frolicked. There were sweet moments, intense bursts, and haunting asides, all combining to put the audience in a mood to see a story unfold. Perhaps performances like this will put Saint-Georges in the sights of opera presenters and one day we’ll see a full opera by this talented composer.

This was followed by a short piece by Florence Price (1887–1953), an Arkansas woman who lived for some years not far from Hyde Park, in Bronzeville. She is the first Black female composer to have a major orchestra perform her work: the CSO gave the world premiere of her first symphony in 1933. Later this season the CSO will perform her Symphony No. 3.

Andante moderato is a string orchestra rendition of the second movement of Price’s String Quartet No. 1 in G Major. It highlights one of Price’s greatest gifts: her lyrical and evocative use of melody.

The opening section is gently enveloping and Muti’s direction gave it the intimacy of a string quartet but with the lush texture of a full string orchestra. The power of the work comes from its delicacy, which had lace-like intricacy. The second subject featured a contrasting and slightly darker mood, with haunting pizzicato and ended with the solemnity of a hymn or spiritual. The concluding section was soothing and languid, suggesting a peaceful setting and quiet satisfaction.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony required the full orchestra and it was exciting to see the stage once again stuffed with musicians. This is a well-known and well-loved work so it was electrifying to hear it performed with such masterful technical precision and interpretive depth.

The dark struggles suggested by the music, the somber funeral march, with later expressions of triumph and joy could speak to some listeners as a kind of soundtrack to their lives during the COVID pandemic. But the universality of the musical pictures, the heroic striving and ultimate success, will continue to speak to folks long after the virus is forgotten.

The orchestra was wonderful, with long, sweeping lines and striking intensity. The strings had grandeur, the winds provided darkly drawn detail, and the horns and trumpets had gleam and power. Muti knew how to emphasize both the darkness and the light, was masterful with dynamics, and created vast swirls of sound that enveloped the imagination.

It was a magnificent way to start the new CSO season.

M.L. Rantala, Hyde Park Herald, September 30, 2021

CSO’s Second Fall Season Concert is Nothing Short of Electrifying

di Hedy Weiss | October 1, 2021

Last week’s concert marking the return of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Muti to Orchestra Hall was a great spirit-raising event. But this Thursday’s second concert in the fall series was absolutely electrifying as Leonidas Kavakos — the Greek-born violinist who thrilled audiences with his performance of Beethoven’s 1806 “Violin Concerto in D Major” two years ago — returned to the stage with a galvanic rendering of Brahms’ 1878 “Violin Concerto in D Major,” leaving the packed house in a state of contained awe between movements, but then finally erupting in a standing ovation and extended volcanic applause once it drew to its rousing finale.

And there was no less exultation following the bravura performance of Beethoven’s triumphant “Symphony No. 7 in A Major” – a work whose grand emotional sweep and dramatic rhythmic shifts made intense demands on every section of the ever-phenomenal CSO.

In an interview I did with Maestro Muti last week, I asked him about Kavakos’ unforgettable pre-pandemic performance and he explained the very delicate interplay between a soloist and conductor in matters of interpretation. He also noted that this violinist is interested in being a conductor himself, but I would hate to see him relinquish his bow for a baton.

Kavakos draws a dazzling range of sound and emotion from his Stradivarius violin — from a near imperceptible whisper to a brilliant fireworks display, from a feverish opening solo to a delicate singing quality. And always there is a magnificent sense of the work’s melodic undertow.

In fact, the whole piece suggests that the violin is the composer’s private voice, full of internal turmoil, while the orchestra conjures the stormy outside world in which the superb woodwinds, brass, timpani and strings all contribute their own crucial voices. Even in the concerto’s most familiar passages — including a wild folk-dance-infused theme — the musicians created a seamless drama. And their impeccable synchrony captured the aura of genius, madness and introspection devised by Brahms, and brought to such vivid life along with Kavakos.

And then came Beethoven, in a symphony that is at turns awash in dramatic, wavelike transitions, a dirge-like theme, and an immense, propulsive energy. And again, there was notably beautiful playing by the wind section, with delicate, lace-like sound in passages from the strings.

Ultimately there is a triumphal, celebratory life force at work in this symphony, tumultuous as it might be at times. Listening to this piece is to imagine the sensation of riding a thoroughbred horse through every possible type of terrain. All in all, it is just another reminder of a human-made miracle – one realized by the genius who could create such work, and by the musicians who have mastered its performance and been able to make it come to life so brilliantly.

The final performance of this concert is this Saturday at 8 p.m.

Next week’s concerts (Oct. 7 – 9) mark the end of Muti’s fall residency with the CSO in a concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique),” along with “These Words In Us,” a work by Missy Mazzoli, the CSO’s former Mead composer-in-residence, and “The Enchanted Lake,” a tone poem by the relatively unknown Russian composer Anatoly Liadov, a contemporary of Tchaikovsky.

Meanwhile, Kavakos will return to Orchestra Hall on Nov. 7 for a collaboration with pianist Yuja Wang, with a program of works by Bach, Busoni and Shostakovich.

Hedy Weiss, wttw, October 1, 2021

Watch the photos:

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2021

On Thursday, September 23, Music Director Riccardo Muti joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a capacity audience at Symphony Center in a heartfelt reunion after more than nineteen months apart. To mark the momentous occasion, Muti opened the evening by addressing the vitality of culture. Watch the video:

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