The Chicago Symphony is on a roll. It can always be counted on for excellent concerts, but in the last few weeks it has absolutely outdone itself.
The evidence? First, there were the gripping February presentations of the classic opera, “Cavalleria rusticana.” And then came Thursday evening, with the first of four performances scheduled in the coming days at Orchestra Hall, which culminated with a knock-out take on Beethoven’s justly popular Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.
There are a few obvious reasons behind this supercharged playing. The first is that the orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti, who led these two sets of concerts, have been together for an unusually long period of time, starting with their 10-concert European tour in January and continuing with four February concerts in Florida. The result is that they are playing with exceptional unity and synchronicity even for them.
Second, the orchestra’s recent hires have settled in and are noticeably boosting their sections, especially principal French hornist David Cooper and principal trumpeter Esteban Batallán, who both led their colleagues in stirring passages during the Fifth Symphony.
The orchestra’s thrilling take on the Fifth is part of a seasonlong undertaking to perform all nine of these of these milestone works in the symphonic repertoire as well as other major pieces by Beethoven as part of the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
The challenge with such a well-known work is to find a way to reinvigorate it and allow listeners to hear it anew, and the orchestra did that and so much in addition. Again and again, Muti called for more from the orchestra — not volume, not speed but even greater urgency and feeling — and he got it.
He and the orchestra offered a duly bold but not overdone take on the hammering eight notes that famously open this symphony, and indeed those words could describe this whole movement. Muti infused it with a sense of urgency and drive, even emphatically slicing his hand horizontally through the air at one point to insist on the beat.
Much of that same unsettled feeling returned in the third movement, which gloriously and almost magically transitions into the fourth movement. The clouds lift and light shines in Beethoven’s C major finale, which the orchestra, especially the brass, delivered in all its rousing grandeur.
But the linchpin of this performance arguably came in an unexpected place, the slow second movement. It can sometimes be a little overlooked, but Muti made sure that wasn’t the case here, as he induced the audience to really lean in and listen as he carefully and compellingly negotiated the shifts between the two contrasting interwoven themes.
Throughout this performance, Muti balanced the coursing propulsiveness and energy with an insistence on precise articulations and disciplined dynamics, and he made sure that the short, easily overlooked woodwind solos that dot this work got the attention that they deserve.
To help remind listeners just how radical the Symphony No. 5 once was (and still is in many ways), the program opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major. Op. 36, which looks back to Haydn but offers no small share of inventiveness of its own.
Muti and the orchestra offered an appropriately ordered approach to this work while giving the music space to breathe and infusing it with lightness and spiritedness, especially in the perky third-movement Scherzo.
Rounding out this program was the world premiere of French composer Nicolas Bacri’s Ophelia’s Tears, Concertante Elegy, Op. 150, which was commissioned by the CSO. The unusual composition for solo bass clarinet and orchestra, which runs a little more than 15 minutes, is inspired by Ophelia, the celebrated character in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet,” who goes mad and ultimately dies.
The dramatic, well-constructed work is not a full-fledged concerto in part because the bass clarinet does not have the same power as a violin or piano. Instead, the instrument has more of a large supporting role, with its often slower, introspective moments offset by more turbulent orchestral passages with sometimes pounding timpani, piercing strings and high-pitched woodwinds.
The work was written for the orchestra’s bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, and he could hardly have been more masterful as he movingly shaped the mournful, lonely passages, giving listeners a wonderful sense of this dark, expressive instrument. While much of this music lay, as expected, in the bass clarinet’s growly low range, it sometimes climbed into the instrument’s higher register, with a slightly pinched timbre that conveyed an elusive sense of questioning.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.