Muti, Kavakos and CSO combine for superb program at Orchestra Hall
Thursday’s line-up showcased two classic compositions embedded in the bedrock of the orchestral repertoire.
After last week’s opening of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2021-22 season with its high emotions and podium commentaries, the ensemble returned to a relative sense of normalcy with the first in its second set of concerts Thursday evening at Orchestra Hall.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 2
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
And unlike that kick-off program, which included two almost unknown historical works getting their first Chicago Symphony hearings, Thursday’s line-up showcased two classic compositions embedded in the bedrock of the orchestral repertoire.
While novelty and variety are always desirable and welcome, it is also worthwhile to return to these pieces that never grow old and serve as touchstones that allow audiences to in some ways to take the measure of this venerable orchestra.
If these musicians were still shaking off a little rust after spending more than a year during the coronavirus shutdown playing only sporadically and mostly in small groups for on-line presentations before a return to full-blown live performances at the Ravinia Festival this past summer, it would be totally understandable.
But as Thursday’s concert made absolutely clear, that is not at all the case. In what is a tribute to the skills and professionalism of these world-class musicians, this orchestra sounds every bit at the top of its game.
Much the same could be said of music director Riccardo Muti, who drew the best from the musicians in these two works. As is always the case with this master conductor, nothing is impetuous, nothing is overdone, nothing is unconsidered. Yes, there is all the necessary punch and pop, but his is a refined, nuanced sensibility.
The evening opened with Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. Op. 77, one of the most frequently heard works in this form, although, surprisingly, nearly six years have passed since the Chicago Symphony last played it.
Muti and Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos offered what might best be described as an understated take on this work, an approach that was especially apparent in the long first movement. It carries the tempo marking — allegro non troppo, which means fast, but not too much so.
They took the “not too much so” direction to heart, offering a gentle, unhurried and at times even surprisingly measured approach, but one that never sacrificed the section’s momentum and flow. Here and throughout the piece, Muti, the consummate accompanist, made sure the orchestra and the soloist were always balanced and in sync.
After the slow second movement, which begins with a lovely woodwind chorale led by a solo from principal oboist William Welter, the piece concluded with a fun, lively take on the third movement with is catchy folk rhythms that have been attributed to the Hungarian Roma.
Though this work certainly has it technical flourishes, it’s more about expression than technique, and Kavakos handled it all with a comfortable, straightforward interpretation that took full advantage of his pleasing, silken tone. He used an involved, sometimes inward-looking cadenza by the soloist for which the concerto was originally composed, Joseph Joachim, and made the most of it.
Kavakos earned an extended standing ovation, which probably came as much from his fine playing as it did from the audience’s sheer joy in hearing a soloist perform with the orchestra at Orchestra Hall for the first time in some 19 months.
Then came the evening’s apex — Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. It is one of the most familiar works in the classical literature, but Muti and the orchestra offered an authoritative interpretation that was fresh and alive in every way.
After an appropriately spacious, relaxed take on the introduction, principal flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson deftly introduced the movement’s buoyant main theme. The entire orchestra took it up with an appropriately light, agile touch — Muti setting a tempo that seemed just right.
A bit of darkness creeps into the slightly slower second movement which began with the rich, burnished sound of the low strings — a stand-out moment. The evening ended in stellar style, with Muti and the orchestra injecting abundant vim and verve into its take on the exhilarating finale, one of the best-known sections in all classical music with its snappy, propulsive theme powered by the soaring French horns.
It, too, drew a standing ovation from an audience clearly delighted to reconnect live with these timeless classical standbys.
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.