Oldies but goodies are reborn via masterful interpretations by the CSO, Riccardo Muti
The program was no disparate group of selections. Muti clearly wanted to transport viewers back to a very particular world of late Romanticism, where beautiful melodies and harmonies were the norm.
At a time when orchestras across the country are putting a more urgent emphasis on expanding, updating and diversifying their repertoire, the first in a pair of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts Thursday night at Orchestra Hall was something of a throwback.
These performances with maestro Riccardo Muti on the podium are part of a three-week series of programs that the orchestra added when a planned Asian tour had to be canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
When: 3 p.m. Jan. 23
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
And for this week’s line-up, Muti clearly wanted to present a group of crowd-pleasers. There was nothing necessarily heroic or profound about these works from the late 19th century. It was just great fun, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
As though anticipating a music critic might write those very words, Muti grabbed a microphone and offered some rare introductory remarks from the podium. He noted that while this music might seem “easy” to perform, it actually presented “great difficulty,” and he took a few (hopefully lighthearted) jabs at critics who might not make this realization.
Of course, he has a point. And nowhere was it more evident than in the evening’s scrumptious musical dessert — Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Emperor Waltz,” Op. 437, a familiar, festive work that is performed so often at New Year’s concerts and orchestral galas that it is often taken for granted.
There is actually considerable complexity to this piece, as is clear by the many performances that miss the mark. That was anything but the case here. Muti has conducted the famed Vienna Philharmonic myriad times, and he is clearly steeped in the style and ethos of this music.
It is imperative to capture the circular, swirling motion of the waltz, not to mention its distinctive swoops and swells, and Muti and the CSO did that and much more. They injected constant variety into the phrasing and alternately brought a sense of elegance, delicacy and even drama to this music. In short, it was a delight.
While musical pleasure might have been the chief goal Thursday night, this was no disparate group of selections. Muti clearly wanted to transport viewers back to a very particular world of late Romanticism, where beautiful melodies and harmonies were the norm.
All of these works were written within 19 years of each other, and three of them were composed in an even more compact period from 1888 through 1894. What further ties them together is that they are all related in some way to the worlds of opera or dance.
Muti clearly reveled in this music, evenly playfully mugging to the audience after a couple of frolicsome sections, and his infectious zeal carried over the musicians, who very much got into the spirit of the evening.
At the heart of the program were excerpts from two of Tchaikovsky’s great ballets. Leading off was the Suite from “The Sleeping Beauty,” Op. 66a, with its rich, well-known aural world providing an ideal showcase for this orchestra. It was a matter of sitting back and basking in the stunning sounds emanating from the stage— lush strings, shining brass and poetic woodwinds.
Much the same could be said of the Suite from “Swan Lake,” Op. 20a, though it often takes on a darker, more melancholic tone so tellingly encapsulated in the opening section with its plaintive solo by principal oboist William Welter. This work includes an array of dances, and Muti and the orchestra nicely captured the distinctive flavor of each.
The program’s one largely unknown work was the five-minute opener, the Overture to “Donna Diana,” by Emil von Reznicek, a prolific composer who is only remembered for this one work. Although often performed in the past, this light, effervescent appetizer has fallen out favor in recent decades, which is a shame, as this sparkling take made evident.
As Muti noted in his introductory remarks, these works offered abundant opportunities for solos by the orchestra’s principal musicians, and they took full advantage. Deserving particular note was guest principal harpist Katherine Siochi from the Kansas City (Missouri) Symphony, who drew a well-deserved sustained ovation after the Suite from “Swan Lake.” She delivered solos in both suites that were graceful and transporting.