González-Granados makes history with CSO; Andsnes superb in Mozart concertos

With Riccardo Muti forced to withdraw from this weekend’s series of concerts, Lina González-Granados became the first Latina to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

SHARE González-Granados makes history with CSO; Andsnes superb in Mozart concertos
Solti Conducting Apprentice Lina González-Granados conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two opera overtures on Thursday night at Symphony Center

Solti Conducting Apprentice Lina González-Granados conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two opera overtures on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

When an artist is forced to cancel and a classical-music program has to be modified at the last minute, such a change results in some inevitable disappointments, but it can also provide unexpected opportunities.

That is certainly the case with a set of four Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts that began Thursday evening. Music Director Riccardo Muti was supposed to lead the performances, but the orchestra announced Tuesday that he had contracted COVID-19 and would have to withdraw.

Losing any concerts with the famed maestro is always unfortunate, but his absence in this case also meant that the original program, including Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto, a rarely heard and welcome inclusion, had to be dropped.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lina González-Granados conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano

CSO review

When: 1:30 p.m. April 8; 8 p.m. April 9; 7:30 p.m. April 12

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $35-$225

Info: cso.org

This is one of those cases, however, where the losses come with some gains. First off, the audience, which was no doubt smaller than it would have been with Muti present, got a chance to witness a milestone—the first Latina to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Lina González-Granados won the fourth Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition and became the orchestra’s Solti Conducting Apprentice under Muti, with her tenure running from February 2020 through June 2022.

Although the Colombian-born conductor is at the beginning stages of her career, she already has a substantive resume that includes a return visit this season to the New York Philharmonic and her appointment as resident conductor of the Los Angeles Opera beginning in July 2022.

It was hard to make any real judgments about her conducting, because she only led short pieces at the start of each half—the overtures to two beloved operas, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” That said, González-Granados was obviously well-prepared and delivered clean, efficient performances of both selections and demonstrated a feel for the theatrical flair that is essential to both. With expansive, fluid gestures, she found the fun and whimsy in the “Barber” overture and brought it to a suitably boisterous conclusion but seemed most at home in the “Don Giovanni,” giving shape to its out-sized emotions.

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes makes his conducting debut leading the CSO in two Mozart piano concertos on April 7.

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes makes his conducting debut leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two Mozart piano concertos on April 7.|

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

As noteworthy as her appearance was, the concert’s main draw was the chance to see the always wonderful Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in action not only as a soloist, as was previously scheduled, but also in his first appearance with the CSO as conductor.

He led the orchestra in superlative performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (using cadenzas by Beethoven and Hummel), and Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. Both are featured as part of Andsnes’ “Mozart Momentum 1785/1786,” a multi-season undertaking in which he is zeroing in on two pivotal years of the composer’s career in Vienna.

As part of that project, he recorded all of Mozart’s piano concertos from this time, including the two heard in Chicago, leading the works from the keyboard with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, as he did here.

Taking on both roles, something that other pianists like Jeffrey Kahane and the orchestra’s past music director, Daniel Barenboim, have done as well, allows for an intimate, instinctive kind of communication and interaction with the orchestra that can be different than just leading from the podium.

That was richly in evidence right from the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20, which was worth the price of admission it itself. Andsnes injected a sense of urgency and drama into this restless music, with his emphatic gestures and robust tempos and a compelling, in-the-moment responsiveness between himself as soloist and the orchestra musicians.

There were many other wow moments as well. It is not hyperbole to say that Andsnes is one of the great pianists of our time, with playing of extraordinary buoyancy, eloquence and depth. The audience got to zero in on those many talents during a kind of early encore, when he showed off his airy touch alone in Mozart’s quick Rondo for Piano in D Major, K. 485.

But as terrific as he is at the keyboard, it is very evident that Andsnes’ conducting is no lark. He has as firm an idea of what he wants from the interpretation as a whole as he does from his own playing. Here’s hoping the orchestra invites him back in both capacities soon.

A symphony spokeswoman reports that Muti’s COVID symptoms are mild, and there are hopes that he can participate in some activities before his latest stay in Chicago concludes, including an open rehearsal April 11 as part of the Chicago Youth in Music Festival. In addition, he is set to return for his next set of concerts beginning April 28.

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