At Orchestra Hall: The Latest Examples of Maestro Muti’s Magic and the CSO’s Brilliance

Hedy Weiss | September 27, 2023

Something truly magical (and magnificent) happens when Maestro Riccardo Muti arrives on the podium to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And although earlier this year he stepped down as the orchestra’s music director after 13 seasons at the helm, happily he was named the CSO’s music director emeritus for life. So he will be returning regularly to Chicago for at least the next three years and will continue his invaluable relationship with the remarkable musicians who, unquestionably, are among the world’s finest.

The latest proof of all this was on display in two different concerts this past Thursday and Saturday evening.

The Thursday evening concert opened with two stunning but radically different works, both of which happened to be composed in 1909 by Russian composers — Anatoly Liadov and Igor Stravinsky. Then came Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 2 in D Major,” a rapturous work (dubbed his “Pastoral”) composed in 1877.

Liadov’s hauntingly beautiful seven-minute piece “The Enchanted Lake” was pure poetry. It began with the subtlest rumble, the sound of the harp and celesta and a dreamy airborne riff. It then grew denser and darker with the addition of the winds, horns, timpani and other percussion. The mood throughout was simply magical. And this brief but exquisite (and rarely heard) treasure got the evening off to a fine start.

Next was the knockout suite from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” a work created for a ballet that was to be performed in Paris and produced by the impresario Serge Diaghilev. (Ironically enough, Diaghilev initially asked the less-than-productive Liadov to compose the score but ultimately turned to Stravinsky, the young genius who would be catapulted to fame by the piece.)

The “Firebird” is, of course, a stunningly modern, richly dramatic, highly original work full of great rhythmic shifts and a brilliant use of an array of instruments. It opens with the low strings suggesting that something is brewing, with the brass answering the call. It’s then joined by the clarinet and timpani, the piano and harp and a sudden excitement that sends the work off to the races. And Muti was flying all along the way with the firebird.

The Dance of the Princesses followed, with a lyrical opening from the harp (played by guest harpist Julia Coronelli), joined by the strings, horns and winds. Then came the wild, fiery and frenzied Infernal Dance of King Kashchei that was followed by a total mood shift by way of the dreamy Berceuse. Stunning. A true theatrical wonder.

The concert’s second half was devoted to Brahms’ beautiful symphony with its lushly lyrical opening that began with the low strings and used the timpani to suggest there was something stormy in the air. And that was just the start of a piece full of shifting dynamics and emotions that seamlessly swept from one mood to another — from the dreamily romantic to high drama, from a charming lightness to a fiery race, from a playfully rhythmic sequence to a big blast of sound and intense energy. And by the time it was over, I was left wondering why no choreographer has grabbed this score and set a ballet to it.

This past Saturday night’s concert (performed just before the Symphony Ball that was held at The Four Seasons Hotel and raised more than $1 million to help underwrite the CSO’s educational activities), was another musical miracle, with Maestro Muti noting, “We have only guns and tears. We need music.”

The star of the program was guest violinist Leonidas Kavakos, whose breathtaking performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” was so dazzling that at one point some members of the audience erupted in applause and cheers to the point where Muti had to stop the music, comment briefly and then forge ahead with Kavakos and the orchestra in peak form.

The Concerto’s opening has a gorgeous singing quality, and it builds to suggest that something is coming. It is, in the form of a violin solo at once singing and pensive. And the unique warmth and golden tone of Kavakos’ playing was stunning, as was the bravura speed, clarity and lightness of what followed.

The orchestra backed every virtuosic turn by Kavakos, a musician who can shift easily from great delicacy to virtuosic storminess. His command of the violin is riveting, and he and Muti were in absolute synchrony throughout as the work moved from the delicately dreamy and personal, to a big bang from the orchestra, to Kavakos’ solo riff that moved to a high-speed fury and served as just another reminder of his speed-of-light fingering and Tchaikovsky’s absolute genius.

Muti’s opera roots were deftly revealed in the second part of the concert that was devoted to an inspired sequence of three Intermezzos by Italian opera composers: Umberto Giordano, Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Completing the lineup was Giuseppe Verdi’s Overture to “Giovanna d’Arco” (“Joan of Arc”), one of his less heralded and infrequently performed works.

Giordano’s Intermezzo from “Fedora” was brief, beautiful and lushly romantic. Puccini’s Intermezzo to “Manon” had the violas and cellos singing softly and with a familiar tragic beauty that shifted moods on a dime — from high intensity to dreamy lightness that “sang” all the way through.

Leoncavallo’s Intermezzo for the tragic opera “Pagliacci” — about an actor who murders his wife and her lover — moves from dark to light, lyrical to heated, and on to mournful, with Muti giving this orchestral work a human voice throughout. The piece’s quiet awakening was simply exquisite.

And then came Verdi, with a big opening blast followed by an almost bird-like sound. And that shifting of moods continued as the music moved from solemnity to lightness, then on to a riff of terror, to a full- orchestral frenzy, to a lively march and a build to high speed, with Muti clearly wrapped up in the drama all along the way.

Hedy Weiss, wttw, September 27, 2023

“Octagon” Octogenarians: Philip Glass Composes a New Work of Friendship for Muti and the Chicago Symphony

Dennis Polkow | September 22, 2023

“Maestro!” called out an enthusiastic, then-Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti to composer Philip Glass before the two embraced after a performance of the Glass Symphony No. 11 with the CSO in February of last year. It was a surprising summit between two near-contemporary legendary figures in music—Glass eighty-six, Muti eighty-two—whose paths had not crossed during their long careers.
“Now I have to calm down,” said Muti more quietly as they separated, each still holding each other’s arms. “Your piece gave me a lot of electricity! You promise that you will write a piece for me?”
“Sure!” responded Glass enthusiastically, without hesitation. “You have such sensitivity,” Muti continued. “The wonderful colors you give to the orchestra. The second movement is really atmospheric.”
“That’s wonderful that you let that come out,” said Glass, beaming. “I was very, very happy,” said Muti. “You know, I spent more nights with you than with my wife! Studying the score, of course!”
“When will I see you again?” said Glass, walking with Muti, arm-in–arm. “I hope soon,” responded Muti. “The thing is,” said Glass, “is that you took this piece to the end, and beyond.”
“There is so much more there,” said Muti. “Also, I am older. When you are older, you are more pensive. When you read the score, you have an impression. But going in, in, in more deeply, you find that behind the notes, there are so many other things.”

Muti and Glass were both so pleased with the CSO performances of the Glass Eleventh Symphony that a recording of it was released in June as the centerpiece of Muti’s last recording as CSO music director, “Contemporary American Composers.” CSO-commissioned works by composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery and CSO violist and composer Max Raimi were also included.

Beginning in his new role as music director emeritus for life, which officially began September 1, Muti will open the 2023-24 season with three programs, across two weeks, which include the first subscription program of the season September 21-26, with music of Liadov, Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite and the Brahms Second Symphony. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos will perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and music of Giordano, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Verdi will also be performed for the Symphony Ball on September 23.

The third program takes place September 28-30 and includes Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Italian”), Richard Strauss‘ “Aus Italien” and the world premiere of Glass’ “The Triumph of the Octagon.” Glass’ piece will also be given its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall as part of a two-concert Muti/CSO gala opening to its 2023-24 season on October 4 and 5.

“You can see the octagon here in my office,” Muti said, pointing to a large framed photo of Castel del Monte when we did a broadcast announcing the 2023-24 season last February. The first time we had an in-person interview in his downstairs studio at Orchestra Hall back in early 2011, Muti pointed to the same framed photo on his wall and related the story. “It’s the thirteenth-century castle of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, in Puglia, in the south of Italy. When I first saw this castle, I was five years old. They brought me during the night from the Adriatic coast to the castle, all night long, in a horse-drawn carriage. And when they opened the curtain in the carriage, I saw this,” Muti said, pointing to the castle. “Since that moment, this castle has remained in my mind. The philosophy of Frederick has been always in my heart, all my life. He’s been a sort of angel, a companion. A friend. He was a genius in everything.

“Becoming older, I thought, one day I want to buy a little piece of land in front of the castle and I want to spend my last years sitting there and looking at the castle. I have read everything about Frederick Hohenstaufen. He was emperor of Germany, but king of Napoli. The father was the emperor, but the mother was a Sicilian princess. So because he was very smart, he preferred to live in the south of Italy than to stay in Germany,” said Muti, tongue-in-cheek.

“And so, I have a little property of stone houses very near the castle, actually, one kilometer from the castle, 500 meters from the front window, the hall of the throne. You can see here all of my property,” he said, pointing to it on the framed picture. “It’s very poor land, but full of poetry: nothing rich. And this is the last castle that now has world heritage. And this castle was built for the mind, to put together people of science, philosophy, mathematics. Not for war, not for prison, not for hunting. It is a mysterious castle.”

“It’s his last castle,” Muti added. “He built so many castles in the south and north of Italy. This special castle is associated with the number eight, which is everywhere. There are eight towers and the number eight is repeated. It’s sort of a symbolic, mysterious and  metaphysical number.”

No doubt Glass heard the same story while visiting Muti’s studio in February of 2022 while attending the final two CSO performances of his Symphony No. 11.

“I spoke so much about this castle,” admitted Muti. “But I didn’t say to Glass, ‘Write a piece of music about this.’ Maybe he was fascinated by my description of this castle? The triumph of the octagon is the triumph of this castle of Frederick Hohenstaufen.

“The number eight is the infinite to the Arabs. Frederick was not only a genius in everything: science, culture, the law. He was also the person, the king, who put together peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims. We would like to have somebody like him who is able to do something like this today! The castle was built with the influence of all three of these different cultures. It’s a masterpiece.”

In a Composer’s Note written for the world premiere of “The Triumph of the Octagon” that will be published in the CSO program book, Glass relates that “It was a thrill to hear this great orchestra and conductor in the hall where I would visit as a student [at the University of Chicago] in the early 1950s. After those performances we began conversations about writing a new piece specifically for this orchestra with the initial idea to create an ‘Adagio for Muti.’ The final title of the work came from a suggestion from Maestro Riccardo Muti about Castel del Monte, a thirteenth century southeastern castle in Italy.

“The mystery of this ancient place and the uniqueness of its geometric proportions, specifically its eight octagonal towers was an interesting catalyst; while I have written music about people, places, events and cultures, I cannot recall ever composing a piece about a building. What became clear was that I was not writing a piece about Castel del Monte per se, but rather about one’s imagination when we consider such a place. I dedicate this work to Maestro Muti, in honor of his many successes as conductor of the CSO, and important contributions to the world of music.”

“It’s a wonderful ensemble, this orchestra,” Glass said to me at a reception following the final CSO performance of his Eleventh Symphony. “I’ve been listening to it since I was fifteen years old. I lived here from fifty-two to fifty-six, five years in all. It really is amazing, isn’t it?”

Did Glass notice the new bust of Fritz Reiner in the lobby, I wondered? “Yes!” he said, wide-eyed. “You know, in those days, I couldn’t go up to Reiner and talk to him. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. I would get a student ticket in the gallery—you could hear everything up there—and get on the Illinois Central and go home. The aura is still here. It’s an amazing orchestra. In the fifties, we used to say that the best orchestra in America was Chicago. I still think it’s true.”

Dennis Polkow, Newcity, September 22, 2023

A champagne night of glittering music for the CSO and Riccardo Muti

M.L. Rantala | September 25, 2023

There were light blustery breezes on Michigan Avenue the afternoon before the Symphony Ball for financial supporters of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a kickoff of the 2023–24 season. The pavement in front of Symphony Center on Saturday was decked out in a bright red carpet and cheerful members of CSO administration greeted patrons with gracious smiles, directing them to champagne, a photo wall, a bright performance by a brass ensemble and more.

Inside, the festive mood continued as folks made their way through Symphony Center enjoying free champagne and taking in the wide array of fashion and jewelry displays on the smartly decked out audience.

But it was the music that made the biggest splash. The CSO is currently without a music director, Riccardo Muti having retired at the end of last season. With his retirement came a new title: Music Director Emeritus for Life. It is in this role that Muti is back in Chicago conducting several performances to open the CSO season. He presided over a short but bracing concert that played to some of his numerous strengths.

The Sept. 23 concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist. Together, Muti, the orchestra and the soloist showed the audience that high artistry still rules the day at Symphony Center. Kavakos’ solo entrance was hushed and seductive, bathed in orchestral warmth. The golden sound of his playing was entrancing, and at one point, after executing a deliciously delicate high note, there was unexpected applause that created a humorous and brief break in the proceedings, where violinist and conductor held a quick, whispered convo before resuming.

Kavakos performed with shining virtuosity, delivering rapid passages with ease, and he devoted himself to details with grace and charm. The orchestra rendered music full of Romantic excitement and refinement, with Muti demonstrating both clear control and artistic flair.

The next section of the concert featured music from three Italian operas, each an intermezzo from the 1890s. The one from “Pagliacci” was first performed by the CSO shortly after it was written, while the one from ”Fedora” was only introduced to the orchestra by Muti himself a few years ago.

These miniatures were putty in the hands of Muti and his musicians. Giordano’s “Fedora” is not a well-known opera. Phillip Huscher’s program notes report that the opera was based on a play by Victorien Sardou “which was so popular that it gave its name to a hat.” But this performance must surely have left many itching to experience the full opera. The music was lush and inviting, with swelling strings, blustery yet authoritative horns and sweetly gentle harp.

There was much drama in the Intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut” by Puccini. The music, at times almost desperate, had aching beauty and lovely long arcs of passion. It was both theatrical and restrained, shimmering in the conclusion.

The Intermezzo from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” showcased the upper strings with crying sighs followed by orchestra punctuation that was both emphatic and consoling.

The concert closed with the Overture to “Giovanna d’Arco” (Joan of Arc) by Verdi. Muti was adept in his navigation of the stormy section, able to make it both bold and nuanced at the same time. Principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson offered a mesmerizing cadenza later adorned by beautiful playing from all the winds. 

The concluding section was big and bold, infused with blood and guts (in the opera, Joan dies on the battlefield). There were great declarations in the brass and masterful etchings from the high strings. The concert ended with excitement and satisfaction. And just maybe, a few champagne-induced headaches.

M.L. Rantala, Hyde Park Herald, September 25, 2023

Review: Muti conducts ‘Firebird’ for a CSO opening night full of superb storytelling

Hannah Edgar | September 22, 2023

Poor Anatoly Lyadov.

If you’re thinking “Who?,” that’s about right. The Russian composer was the Ballets Russes’ first choice to write music for a choreographic retelling of the Firebird, a Slavic folk tale. He never did. One account claims Lyadov — who made up in talent what he lacked in work ethic — hadn’t even bought his lined score paper by impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s first deadline. The honor instead went to Igor Stravinsky, then an unknown, and the rest is musical history.

The Chicago Symphony’s program this week — its first of the 2023-24 season — pairs the “Firebird” suite we know and love with Lyadov’s “The Enchanted Lake” (1909), a short vignette he composed around the time he fumbled the “Firebird” commission. It’s the CSO’s second performance of “The Enchanted Lake” in about as many years: then-music director Riccardo Muti realized the tone poem with relish in a fall 2021 program.

Now bearing the very regal title of “Music Director Emeritus for Life” and back on the podium through the end of the month, Muti did the same in Thursday’s performance. The dreamy, impressionistic tone poem opts for atmosphere over formal development, but what sublime stasis it is. The fine-grained attention brought to certain orchestrational flourishes made this tranquil work purely gripping. The opening, with its whispered violin flutters and resonant lower strings, gave the illusion that the entire string section was being strummed like a giant harp. Meanwhile, the evening’s actual harpist, Julia Coronelli of the Milwaukee Symphony, elevated the performance with her delicate touch wherever she appeared, as she has in guest appearances over the past two seasons. Maybe the day is coming soon when Lyadov is cited more often for the pieces he composed — most of them charming, vibrant miniatures like “The Enchanted Lake” — than the one he did not.

For now, though, “The Firebird” blazes forth with its own glory, as it did on Thursday. Stravinsky’s score has plenty of gossamer moments not at all far removed from Lyadov’s “Enchanted Lake.” But on Thursday, Muti favored denser, more articulated tuttis throughout the suite. That undercut some of the mystique of the piece’s inimitable opening — the creeping low strings and lapping harmonic glissandi ended up more of a mezzo-something than pianissimo — but it played better elsewhere, especially in a very oratorical Berceuse (with dignified double-reed solos by bassoonist Keith Buncke and oboist William Welter).

The “Infernal Dance” is always a thrill live, but Thursday’s exuberant reading was in its own class. The opening hits tore through the hall like gunshots, timpanist David Herbert’s wooden mallet hits and Jennifer Gunn’s sky-high piccolo cries lending the chords their piercing edge.

From my vantage point, however, the most engrossing musical narrative of the night was the only work that wasn’t programmatic: Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.

“Firebird” might be a gold standard in orchestration, but Muti and the CSO so doted over color and balance that even Brahms’s biggest-boned harmonies seemed built from a series of layered veils. The same articulate approach which found mixed effect in the Stravinsky engagingly teased apart Brahms’s melodies and harmonies; the former, usually in thrall to the latter, captivatingly stepped forth as individual characters.

That philosophy likewise urged an elegant Adagio non troppo movement to a more moderate tempo, reliably held down by the orchestra’s rich, rounded middle voices. Muti maintained that momentum to support the winds’ and low strings’ lyrical lines, as if deferring to a singer’s breath control. A spunky Allegretto grazioso brought out the essential, oft-missed humor of that movement; the moment its endearingly naive principal theme, sung with ardor by oboist William Welter, is shunted aside by a dancehall romp in the violins was totally spot-on.

The fourth movement had the unreserved yet ceremonial joy of a wedding, the glittering festivities not at all bracketed by its grandeur. No wonder it inspired Brahms’s peers so: early on, a prominent clarinet flourish (played by John Bruce Yeh, sitting principal for this program, with his usual infectious vivacity) prefigures the solo for that instrument in the last movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and a few minutes later, a sotto voce C-minor chorale in woodwinds and trombones briefly transports listeners to the opening of Mahler’s First — except that symphony was written a decade later. Any standout interpretation approaches deeply familiar music with new eyes and an open heart; Thursday’s Brahms did exactly that, replicating the awe these composers must have felt hearing those twists more than a century ago.

This program was also something of a testing ground for Mark Almond, the CSO’s new principal horn. I’m not a fan of comparing artists against one another — it’s usually done in poor taste and misses a whole lot of nuance. But on the basis of Almond’s appearances with the orchestra last season and Thursday’s concert, he represents a notable departure from the muscularity and solo spectacle of his predecessors, whose sound streaked over the CSO like a comet. Instead, Almond’s voice tends to expand from within the orchestra, an organ in the organism. Some lines begged to be seized more decisively on Thursday, as in the quiet yet commanding transition into the “Firebird” finale. But others benefited from that light touch, like the graceful gestures traded off with bassoon just before the end of the first movement of the Brahms.

Almond is not the only recent arrival. Long one of the most substitute-heavy sections in the orchestra, the CSO basses brought onboard Ian Hallas, Alexander Horton and Andrew Sommer. Briefly onstage to deliver Muti’s score to his stand before downbeat was Justin Vibbard, the new principal librarian. And the CSO lengthened its list of preternaturally young hires with Danny Yehun Jin, the assistant principal second violin and a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. During final bows, Muti fondly welcomed him with a trademark slap on the cheek.

Hannah Edgar, Chicago Tribune, September 22, 2023

Seems like fabulous old times as CSO, Riccardo Muti combine for familiar works

Kyle MacMillan | September 22, 2023

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its 2023-24 season Thursday evening, it felt like déjà vu. Or a kind of pushing off the future, at least for the moment.

Even though Riccardo Muti stepped down in June after 13 years as the orchestra’s music director, there he was back on the podium, as he will be for next week’s set of concerts as well, as though nothing had changed.

But, of course, things have changed. The CSO is continuing its search for Muti’s replacement with no announced timeline for its completion, and nearly 30 guest conductors, all or some possible music-director candidates, will lead the ensemble this season.

For now, though, Muti, who received the title of music director emeritus for life just before the end of his tenure, is providing some much-needed and welcome artistic continuity and stability during this uncertain time.

Looking fit and rested after turning 82 in July, Muti essentially just picked up where he left off. The audience knew what to expect Thursday evening, and he delivered the same kind of incisive, involving interpretations that marked so much of his music directorship.

The CSO forewent a guest artist for this program, choosing to make this simply a union of conductor and orchestra revisiting three works they have performed together before, including two of the symphonic world’s most enduring masterpieces. And that decision paid off in spades.

The concert’s centerpiece was the Suite from “The Firebird,” the 1909-10 ballet that set Igor Stravinsky on the road to being perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century. While still rooted to the Romantic era, it nonetheless offered a taste of the avant-garde with its insistent rhythms and raw energy.

As he does so well, Muti gave rich voice to that dichotomy and maximized the expressive power of the work’s other inherent contrasts. His muscular, sharp-edged attack on the third movement, titled “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei,” provided an electrifying and thrilling jolt after the careful restraint and atmospheric feel of the first two movements.

Though the contrasts are less dramatic, much the same could be said of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73. Muti and the orchestra basked in the work’s alluring melodies, joyous spirit and voluptuous harmonies, delivering consistently beautiful, captivating playing.

For the evening’s opener, Muti returned to a little-known piece that he clearly fancies — “The Enchanted Lake,” Op. 62, by Anatoly Liadov. The Russian composer was famously commissioned to write “The Firebird” before apparently squandering the opportunity to the benefit of Stravinsky.

Perhaps simply because it was a second hearing, this quiet, intimate and in its way impressionistic piece left more of an impact than it did in 2021, with Muti and the orchestra delivering a delicately evocative and affecting performance.

One of Muti’s major accomplishments was enhancing the already fine sound of the orchestra’s strings, instilling more of a lyrical quality that was abundantly in evidence all evening, especially in the long first movement of the Brahms symphony.

The concert also marked the arrival of six musicians, whose appointments were announced earlier this month. Most prominent is principal French hornist Mark Almond, an English player who left a mostly positive impression in his first outing.

Many other musicians offered strong individual performances including principal oboist William Welter, principal cellist John Sharp, and Kelly Estes Karamanov, a fine keyboardist who provided nuanced contributions on piano and celeste.

A new era will soon dawn at the CSO. But at least for now, with Muti back on the podium, the present is more of the past. And that proved to be a good thing Thursday evening.

Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun-Times, September 22, 2023


September 21

Symphony Ball, September 23

September 28

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

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