The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its autumn 2016 season on the exact day of the Fall Equinox. And while the leaves on the city’s trees have yet to start turning colors there was more than enough musical color on the stage of Symphony Center on Thursday to compensate as Maestro Riccardo Muti led the orchestra in Mussorgsky’s demonic tone poem, “A Night on Bald Mountain,” Richard Strauss’ fabulously dramatic “Don Juan,” and Bruckner’s big, sprawling, continually mood-shifting “Symphony No. 7 in E Major.”
Muti (who spent several days this summer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival), and the CSO (which was busy at the Ravinia Festival), seemed delighted to be reunited. Working in perfect synchrony they can conjure the most luscious sound, punctuated by quick-silver emotional shifts and a technical polish that invariably generates heat as opposed to cold precision.
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
When: Through Sept. 27
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $34 – $220
Info: (312) 294-3000;
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission
Two fiercely theatrical works formed the first half of the program.
“A Night on Bald Mountain” (which, as Phillip Huscher’s program notes explain, is adapter-orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakov’s heavily edited and reworked take on Mussorgsky’s manuscripts), was inspired by a rural Russian Black Mass and has all the crazy energy of a demonic rite. Set in motion from the very start by the frenzied work of the violins, with blazing horns adding power to the madness, Muti and the orchestra deftly churn things up to a wild, circling momentum that eventually spins into exhaustion as chimes sound. The sense of awakening from a magic spell is suggested by the harp, and there is exquisite work by the flutes. The piece leaves you wishing Mussorgsky (who wrote several operas, including “Boris Godunov”) had penned a ballet score. (Another intriguing program note confirms that this piece received its U.S. debut in Chicago as part of a concert of Russian folk music presented at the fabled Columbian Exposition of 1893, and played by an enhanced CSO ensemble.)
In many ways the jewel on this program is Strauss’ “Don Juan,” a thrilling, gorgeously imagined evocation of the fabled (fictional) libertine. This piece, too, is feverish from the start, as if driven by the wildly beating heart of a figure who more often than not erupts in a storm of passion and leaves chaos in his wake. Yet while there is a formidable sense of lust at work here, there also are rich passages of romance, with dreamy strings adding to an overall sensuality. Tumultuous one moment and lyrical the next – with superb work from the oboe and horn section along the way – Muti and the orchestra tear through this piece in a way that makes you feel the sweep of Don Juan’s cape as he races in and out of the boudoir.
The second half of the program is devoted to the massive Bruckner work – a bear of a piece that taps into every color and mood and often seems to circle back around itself.
Those mood swings are evident from the start: A slow, increasingly dense massing of strings, the surging sound of the horns, and then a surprising switch to a graceful, delicate, dance-like theme followed by a return to a stormy, ominous atmosphere. It’s almost as if Bruckner is charting his interior emotional states over the course of time.
The symphony’s mournful second movement is in many ways its most beautiful, with Muti and his musicians finessing every shift of feeling in the most nuanced ways – capturing the music’s formality, sadness, sudden sweetness, all with a velvety tone and a seamless gathering of triumphal sound that often retreats into a gentler, more peaceful state. A sort of call-and-response between the strings and the brass in the third movement is wholly captivating, with a singing quality in the fourth and final movement of the work ceding to exquisite playing by the flutes and an almost otherworldly quality in the strings.
Muti heartily embraces this symphony which in many ways embodies the essence of orchestral work with its extravagant layering of sound and dazzling ensemble work. And he has shaped it in ways that bring a clarity to its many different parts. That said, the gorgeous performance doesn’t entirely camouflage the somewhat inflated nature of Bruckner’s work.