Riccardo Muti ends fall CSO residency on eclectic high note

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Riccardo Muti brings his fall residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to a close — and finishes preparations for the CSO’s upcoming tour of Europe — with a program both eclectic and interconnected.

The orchestra starts its tour with a belated debut in Warsaw Oct. 20 and so a Polish piece was in order. The music director is doing a cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies here this season, so the very rarely played Third Symphony — which has a polonaise in its final movement and has been mis-titled “Polish” in the hundred-plus years since the composers death — could do double duty. And with the Tchaikovsky filled with dance music and calls for wind and brass virtuosity, why not bits of Stravinsky’s great ballet score, “The Firebird”? After all, it was the revolutionary Stravinsky who conducted the CSO premiere of Tchaikovsky’s 1875 symphonic stepchild in 1940.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti, conductor Christopher Martin, trumpet RECOMMENDED WHEN: Repeats Saturday at 8:30 p.m. WHERE: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan TICKETS: $22-$240 INFO: (312) 294-3000, cso.org

Andrzej Panufnik spent much of his compositional life in the shadow of his World War II homefront piano duo partner Witold Lutoslawski, the more gifted and serious creator. Panufnik’s centenary last week, though, allows for revisiting some of the works of the man who broke with Communist Poland and escaped to Britain in 1954 while the more famed Lutosławski stayed in Warsaw and made an inner artistic immigration.

Panufnik and Georg Solti, an exile himself from Hungarian fascism and Communism, each were happily married to British writer-journalists later in life and the couples became friends with Solti commissioning Panufnik’s Tenth Symphony as a part of the CSO’s centennial celebrations. Rather than that sprawling work, which Panufnik conducted here in 1990, a year before his death at 77, Muti picked a compact novelty. The “Concerto in modo antico” (1951, revised 1955) is a kind of stripped-down Polish counterpart to Respighi’s Italian “Ancient Airs and Dances,” taking neglected music from a country’s post-Renaissance past and setting it for a 20th century audience. Principal trumpet Christopher Martin was the superb soloist in the continuous seven-part, 15-minute mini-concerto. Accompanied only by reduced strings, timpani and harp, Martin demonstrated a quiet virtuosity that combined great control with occasional and appropriate flourishes of courtly times. It’s not much of a piece and has no development but it was a beautiful performance.

It is a shame that we still get the brief 1919 Suite of the great “Firebird” instead of the full masterwork ballet. Whether for cost-saving (the full score has an expanded orchestra) or other reasons, this chopping loses the still-astonishing musical cells and transitions of the piece that make the famous concluding sections possible. That said, all soloists and sections rose to the occasion and followed Muti’s sense of the flow within the music, with Daniel Gingrich offering a special balm with the horn theme and William Buchman making the bassoon sound the most delicate of instruments.

Muti’s devotion to neglected works and to cycles allows us to see a composer across time and wrestling with artistic identity. Last season’s series of all the Schubert symphonies was revelatory. This week’s Tchaikovsky installment, the D Major Third Symphony, Op. 29, was also much more than a mere dusting off. It is often second-tier works that make Muti’s rare combination of precision and lyricism most clear. Tchaikovsky had mixed feelings about this five-movement piece but argued that it was a necessary part of his development, and Thursday night’s performance let you hear many of the elements that would go into “Swan Lake” soon afterwards and the subsequent three core symphonies.

These are among the final performances as principal flute of Mathieu Dufour whose resignation from the orchestra after 15 years was accepted and announced this week, effective at the conclusion of the Europe tour Nov. 3. A new post with Berlin, set to start a year from now, will bring Dufour closer to his native Paris and, with a co-principal, provide a different sort of work schedule. His playing here long ago established him as one of the great individual instrumentalists in CSO history. One wishes him only the best in his new life.

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