CSO, Riccardo Muti offer splendid Mozart, glistening ‘Sheherazade’

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti presented the Mozart Overture to “Don Giovanni,” Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

Music Director Riccardo Muti launched the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season last week at Orchestra Hall with a program centered on Dmitri Shostakovich’s infrequently heard Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” – a searing 1962 denunciation of anti-Semitism and the horrors of war.

Continuing his opening residency with a set of three concerts that began Sept. 27, Muti set aside such weighty socio-historical messages and took a very different direction with a fun, audience-pleasing program of 18th- and 19th-century popular masterworks.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor ★★★1⁄2 When: 8 p.m. Sept. 28 and 29 Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $37-$253 Info: cso.org

A testament to the range and versatility of both the maestro and the Chicago Symphony – the results were equally satisfying in their way, with the evening’s conclusion being greeted with immediate and well-earned cheers.

Muti dedicated the first half to two of Wolfgang Mozart’s best-known works, starting with the Overture to “Don Giovanni,” K. 527. He and the orchestra offered a cogent, patiently paced reading, giving apt voice to the dark, foreshadowing clouds that soon give way to lighter spirits.

It proved to be an ideal appetizer for the main course, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 – one of the composer’s celebrated final works and one with which Muti clearly identifies. He has performed it often in his career, including just three years ago in Orchestra Hall.

Having first conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 1971 and led it many times since, Muti is steeped in the musical sensibility of Mozart’s native country. Those ties could be heard in the kind of Viennese elegance he brought to the musical phrasings here.

He opted for a reduced ensemble of about 48 musicians, a kind of large chamber orchestra which allowed for a lightness and clarity that suited this work. The emphasis was on directness with no undue flourishes. This approach was reflected in his economical conducting in which at times he appeared not to beat time at all with his right hand and simply shaped phrases with his left.

That said, Muti and the orchestra ably conveyed the sweep and thrust of this symphony, from the restlessness of the opening movement to the delicacy of the slow second movement to the disciplined effervescence of the final section – a striking performance overall.

For the second half, Muti and the orchestra turned to the 1888 symphonic suite, “Sheherazade,” Op. 35, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ode to “The Arabian Nights,” a celebrated collection of ancient Persian, Indian and Arabian tales.

Although the composer had virtually no direct experience with Eastern music except for a quick visit in 1874 to Bakhchisaray, once the cultural center of the Crimean Tartars, he was besotted with it.

Under that spell, Rimsky-Korsakov created this now-beloved Orientalist fantasy, making up for whatever it lacks in musical authenticity with bold, inventive orchestral writing, unforgettable melodies and beguiling exoticism.Muti and the orchestra made the most of it all, delivering an intoxicating, seamlessly integrated performance that drew rich, colorful playing from every section. Muti delivered the full scope and scale of this work but never tried to oversell the music, always balancing punch with poetry, making sure the softest moments counted as much as the most boisterous.

The evening culminated with a big, high-energy take on the final movement, which like the other three, carries a programmatic title, “Festival in Baghdad, and the Sea.” It was a thrilling ride, like the piece as whole, punctuated with a satisfying final moment of quiet delicacy.

As much as “Sheherazade” shows off the orchestra as a whole, it also offers myriad solo opportunities, none more important than that for the concertmaster who stands in for Sheherazade. According to legend, she wins over the sultan, who had vowed to kill his wives including her, by telling an alluring series of 1,001 tales – one per night.

Robert Chen was in particularly good form, with evocative, bewitching playing sometimes in compelling dialogue with principal harpist Sarah Bullen. But they were not alone. Notably, this work was also a showcase for the orchestra’s overhauled woodwind section, which has had some first-rate recent appointments.

Among the stand-outs here were principal bassoonist Keith Buncke, who joined the orchestra in 2015 and continues to impress with his agility and expressiveness, and principal oboist William Welter, who took over his post at the beginning of this season.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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