CSO, Muti find music of the baroque an interesting challenge

The conductor and orchestra brought the same skill, care and commitment to this music as they do to everything else they take on, but it seems fair to say that this repertoire is not their forte.

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Maestro Riccardo Muti leads members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Vivaldi and Handel on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Maestro Riccardo Muti leads members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Vivaldi and Handel on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Riccardo Muti has performed and recorded a vast variety of works in his long and distinguished career, emphasizing composers like Giuseppe Verdi, but the music of the baroque has never been at the forefront of his conducting.

Much the same could be said for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While the ensemble has not ignored the baroque era — roughly 1600-1750 — it has not paid the epoch much heed, either. And that’s not surprising, considering that it tends to focus on later musical periods where larger-scaled pieces are the norm, and considering that Chicago boasts a first-rate group known as the Music of the Baroque that specializes in such repertoire.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, Conductor

CSO review jan 27

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 29

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $32-$222

Info: cso.org


Given that background, it was intriguing Thursday evening at Orchestra Hall to see the Chicago Symphony and Muti, who serves as the orchestra’s Zell Music Director, devote the first in a pair of programs entirely to the baroque. They took on four works by two of the era’s biggest stars — George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi.

The conductor and orchestra brought the same skill, care and commitment to this music as they do to everything else they take on, and there were some notable musical moments throughout the evening, but it seems fair to say that this repertoire is not their forte.

Since the 1960s and ‘70s, with the rise of groups like the Academy of Ancient Music, baroque playing has come to come to be dominated by ensembles that use period instruments like gut-string violins and employ historically informed performance practices, leading to a lighter, earthier and more translucent sound.

As Muti has made clear in interviews over the years, he has objections to aspects of the period-instrument movement, but Thursday’s performance conformed to at least a few of its tenets. These included the use of a harpsichord to provide continuo and the small ensemble sizes — just 20 instruments for a couple of the Vivaldi selections.

Moreover, Muti cultivated a real sense of intimacy in these works, as tough as that is to do in a venue as large as Orchestra Hall, forgoing his usual use of a baton and just relying on his hands to lead and shape the musicmaking.

Few if any composers have written more concertos and in more dizzying variety than Vivaldi, who produced more than 500 works in the form. The orchestra took on three of these works, none of which it has performed more recently than 1975 and one of which it had never before played.

The most fascinating was the Flute Concerto in G minor, “La Notte (Night),” Op. 10, No. 2 (RV 439), Vivaldi’s eerie conjuring of a nighttime realm. Although this unconventional work runs just 10 minutes, the composer packs a great deal into its six highly varied movements, none more memorable than the slow, spare fifth, “Il sonno (Sleep).” It was delicately rendered with playing so soft at the beginning that it was barely audible.

The featured soloist was Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the orchestra’s principal flutist, who delivered a stunning performance, playing with ease and sensitivity and subtly altering his tonal color to fit the work’s ever-changing moods. He possesses a pure, shimmering sound that ideally suited this often spare work.

The first half opened with the Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10 (RV 580), which showcased concertmaster Robert Chen and associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong as well as assistant concertmasters David Taylor and Yuan-Qing Yu, who are both first-rate players but are rarely heard in such solo roles.

All four delivered fine individual performances, but the interpretation overall never really came together and sparked. It didn’t help that the tempos in the fast sections seemed to lag just a bit, something that occurred a few times elsewhere in the program as well.

Rounding out the first half was the Concerto in C major (“Per la solennità di San Lorenzo”), RV 556, a kind of concerto for orchestra, spotlighting players across the ensemble including guest harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner, who acquitted himself admirably all evening.

Culminating the evening was the Suite No. 1 in F major from Handel’s spirited “Water Music,” which he famously wrote in 1717 for an excursion by King George I and his court on the Thames River that lasted well into the night.

NOTE: An abridged version of this program will be presented by the CSO at 7 p.m. Friday at Apostolic Church of God, 6320 South Dorchester Ave. The concert is free and open to the public.

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