Chicago Symphony Orchestra annual free concert remains a huge crowd-pleaser

SHARE Chicago Symphony Orchestra annual free concert remains a huge crowd-pleaser

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

It’s no easy task to implement Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti’s enviable commitment to present one free CSO concert each year to as wide a range of Chicagoans as possible. Financial costs, venue logistics, publicity campaigns, performance and rehearsal configurations, programming decisions and, even for the indoor editions, prayers to the weather gods are all required.

And while weather petitions are not always heard —last year’s presentation just west of Chicago in Cicero and the one two years ago at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park took place in the midst of astonishing rainfalls —the event has by its fifth incarnation this year become, in Muti’s own word, a welcome and annual season-starting “tradition.”

So it was no surprise that at least 20,000 people —by official Millennium Park count —packed the seats and the Great Lawn at the Pritzker Friday evening for an all-Tchaikovsky program. And it was a picture-perfect evening from light through night. That this turnout also occurred for what was by no means a “greatest hits” program, one that held no superstar soloists, fireworks, cannons or other extra-orchestral effects, was further testimony to the power of music, the civic love for the orchestra and the wide hunger for real culture.

CSO Association board chair Jay Henderson, acting as a kind of interim CEO in the wake of Deborah Rutter’s move to Washington’s Kennedy Center, welcomed the audience, which included (though unmentioned) Vancouver Symphony Society president Jeff Alexander, who will start as head of the CSOA here in January, and Martha Gilmer, leaving the organization this weekend after a remarkable 35 years in artistic administration to manage the San Diego Symphony.

At the start of his fifth season as music director in Chicago, Muti often reminds one of a beloved schoolmaster. With a mix of jovial humor and deep seriousness he shows everyone from veteran orchestra players to novice concertgoers the joy and enlightenment that can come from great music, carefully studied, extensively practiced and beautifully played.

But he also likes a spoonful of medicine with his sugar. And so what he shared with the enormous crowd was a very straightforward presentation of three works, only two of which contained familiar “Tchaik” tunes, and with the third one both a true performance rarity and the one with which he chose to open the program.

The piece, “The Tempest,” Op.18, a 25-minute “symphonic fantasia” on Shakespeare’s late play, must have had many audience members scratching their heads. Written in 1873 when the composer was 33, it has never entered the main repertoire, certainly not at all on the level of the earlier breakthrough “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.” The CSO played it in the orchestra’s first years, not long after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. They didn’t play it again until 1984 with the late Claudio Abbado, with whom they also recorded it, an unusually little-known Abbado exercise. And now it was having only its third performance here, with Muti.

Sure, this is a piece that scholars, students and orchestral players can benefit from studying and examining —what works and what doesn’t? Why is it so episodic? How did this great summoner of emotions wind up creating storm music that is so mechanical? Why not instead pair it with something contemporary, say music from the recent Thomas Adès opera of the same name that has been a hit in performance? Why not some American music? Something that would contrast with the subsequent 20 minutes of selections from the 1890 ballet “Sleeping Beauty” or the full 1878 F minor Fourth Symphony?

All were well-played, certainly. And the sound and sound system/acoustic sound mix were strong. Eugene Izotov’s idiomatic oboe in the famous pizzicato scherzo of the Symphony showed the movement, even at just six minutes, to be perhaps the finest concerto that we have for this difficult instrument. The horns, led by Daniel Gingrich, delivered a recurring first movement “Fate” theme that was truly musical as well as rhythmic and relentless. Lilac fairies, cats with and without boots, waltzing townsfolk, a spellbound princess were all there, in cameo, in the standard posthumously prepared ballet suite.

But did this really tell the wider public what the CSO and Muti can do? What they do do throughout the season at home and on tour? By no means is it pandering to play the works of one of the greatest Romantic composers and a unique master of orchestration at a free concert for a mass audience. That is not the issue. But unlike prior “Concert for Chicago” programs at the Pritzker, in South Side Woodlawn, or out on Cicero, an opportunity for real engagement seemed to missed.

In brief but pointed comments at program’s end, Muti proposed that the audience come to Orchestra Hall concerts and that only great music and culture could help us “in this terrible world.” I think and know that he could do more to show us how.

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