Maestro Riccardo Muti was back on the podium with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening, joining with that priestess of the piano, Mitsuko Uchida, in a hypnotic rendering of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” as part of a program that also included the world premiere of Mead Composer-in-Residence Samuel Adams’ commissioned piece, “many words of love,” and a lushly beautiful performance of Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4” – all set in motion with a high-spirited rendering of a little “musical antipasto” in the form of Rossini’s overture from an early opera, “La Scala di seta (“The silken ladder”).

CSO with pianist Mitsuko Uchida
Highly recommended
When: March 18 at 8 p.m.; March 19 at 3 p.m.; March 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center,
220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $34 – $230
Info: (312) 294-3000;
http://www.cso.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
with one intermission

Mead Composer-in-Residence Samuel Adams (center), with concertmaster Robert Chen (left), following the world premiere of Adams’ “many words of love.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The indisputable highlight of the concert was the Beethoven, played with what can only be described as a wholly transfixing synchrony among soloist, orchestra and conductor. Uchida’s remarkable approach to the piano – with her ability to shift the weight and meaning of any line of music in the most brilliant and seamless ways – is a given. But the way in which Muti and the orchestra seemed to be breathing as one with her every second of the way had an astonishing effect, and made the audience fully complicit in the magic.

Was it Uchida’s exquisite phrasing, and her ability to balance two very different modalities simultaneously (for example, a light but rapid-fire trill with one hand and a commanding percussive power emanating from the other)? Or was it the way she seemed to shape the music as if she were writing it herself, with a stunning pause here, or a surprising snap at the end of a musical line. It was all of this, and more.

The string section didn’t so much echo Uchida as become one with her, moving from the spirited theme and variations of the opening movement, to the meditative mood of the second movement that builds to a musical equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of  swirling water. The joyful energy of the final movement continued with this magnificent fusing of emotional and tonal shadings by orchestra and soloist alike.

Muti, clearly enthralled by Uchida’s playing, stepped back from the audience’s ringing applause, but the pianist also turned to him and her fellow musicians in a way that suggested she fully understood what had just transpired.

The program’s second half began with Adams’ “many words of love,” a 20-minute evocation of the beauty and violence rooted in the act of carving words of love into a tree trunk. According to a program note, Adams (the son of composer John Adams) was inspired by both a line in Schubert’s “Wintereisse” song cycle, and with a musical phrase from that cycle subsequently reworked by a minimalist composer of the 1980s.

Scored for a great array of percussion including “resonating snare drum with iPad, nipple gong and sandpaper blocks” (and notable work by Patricia Dash), along with winds, brass and strings, the piece has plenty of color – from an opening burst of almost organ-like sounds and church chimes ceding to an anguished cry and scissors-like sounds. The cellists slap the strings of their instruments with their bows, and throughout there is the feeling of small cataclysms erupting, as well as the generation of a sort of Doppler effect.

Of course you listen to this piece in a very different way than you do the Mozart, even if it is written with much the same classical notation. And if you pay close attention you can almost hear the fracturing of a classical bone structure behind it. Subsequent hearings might reveal more of its overall shape.

Muti brought the whole concert “home” with Schumann’s sweeping “Symphony No. 4,”  a “symphony in one movement” that was at once consoling in its melodic beauty, yet with a stormy use of the strings (with Robert Chen, the always superb but modest concertmaster in the lead) that served as a fine complement to Adams’ work. Everything about the performance sang in this work written by Schumann as a musical portrait of his wife, Clara, whom he had recently married.

If there was a melancholy note attached to the evening it came before the concert when a couple looked up at a sign near the box office window that read “Student tickets: $20.” The two turned to each other and said “Wow, that’s great.” Having spent the day reading about the Trump administration’s budget that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, I could only wonder if such subsidized tickets – a crucial tool in building future audiences for classical music – might be under threat.

Note: Tonight (March 17 at 7:30 p.m.), this program will be performed at west suburban Wheaton College, with tickets $60-$95. In addition, following the Symphony Center programs on March 28 and 19, Uchida will sign CDs in the Grainger Ballroom, and there will be a Q & A with the artists following the March 21 performance.