Music director Riccardo Muti called Thursday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert a “very special occasion.”
And so it was.
There were milestones aplenty. Not only did the concert mark the beginning of the 2021-22 season, it was also the first time the full orchestra gathered on the Orchestra Hall stage in any sort of normal way in nearly 19 months. (Mask and vaccination requirements were in place.)
The symphony did offer a live, three-concert series there in the spring, but those performances were presented in a much more restricted way because of COVID-19 protocols, with small, spaced ensembles on the stage and audiences limited to just 398 attendees.
But perhaps the biggest milestone was the presence of Muti himself, the artistic leader and international face of this ensemble who was back for his 12th season. The 80-year-old Italian conductor drew cheers and a standing ovation upon walking on stage at the concert’s start.
Muti’s last appearance with the orchestra was Feb. 23, 2020 — more than 575 days ago. And, indeed, the orchestra announced earlier in the day that it was extending his contract through the 2022-23 season in large part because of his lost time with the orchestra.
After leading “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a tradition at the beginning of each season, Muti walked off stage to get a microphone for a few introductory remarks that he said where unscripted.
Noting English was not his first language, Muti said it was hard to find the words to fully express the depth of emotions that he and the orchestra were feeling. But he went on to movingly and eloquently speak to the essential need for music and culture, especially during the enduring “disaster” of this pandemic.
In honor of the “heroic” actors, musicians, dancers and artists whose artistic voices were largely silenced during the coronavirus, Muti said the orchestra was presenting Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica (Heroic).”
But before it got to that program centerpiece, the orchestra offered something of another milestone. It began the concert with its first-ever performances of two works by once nearly forgotten but now fast-rising historical composers of color, including one who was a woman.
That these two compositions were featured on such a high-profile concert was another sign of the big changes sweeping the classical world as it, like the rest of society, responds to the Black Lives Matter movement and other pressing calls for greater inclusion and diversity.
The program opened with the Overture to “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover),” the only intact surviving opera of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). The mixed-race musician, who gained considerable famed during his lifetime, was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe and is the first known classical composer of African ancestry.
There is little that especially distinguishes this sprightly, solidly crafted 1780 work written in the familiar Classical-era style. The highlight was arguably the slower, softer middle section in which the interplay between the orchestra and harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner could be heard to advantage.
Of considerably more interest was the Andante moderato, a 10-minute work by Florence Price, who lived much of her life in Chicago but fell mostly into obscurity after her death in 1953. She has been rediscovered in recent years and is belatedly and rightly being recognized as one of the major American composers of the 20th century.
Much like Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio for Strings seven years later, the work was originally written in 1929 as the second movement a string quartet, and it was presented here in a version for orchestral strings that deserves to become a concert staple.
Muti reveled in the reflective first and third sections of this beautiful work, which have a spacious, flowing and innately American feel that presages Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” 15 years later. In between is a slightly jazzy, dance-like, more upbeat section that seems almost out of place at first but manages to fit in and complement the rest.
But the focal point of this concert was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Muti and the orchestra offered a towering, all-involving performance of work. There were highlights aplenty especially in the conductor’s exquisite shaping of the dark, slow second movement, as he mined the full power of its brooding, sometimes turbulent emotions.
Much more could be said, but the performance made one thing emphatically clear: The Chicago Symphony is back in full force.