Mozart’s Serenade a glorious showcase for 13 CSO musicians and the singular Riccardo Muti

This vibrant, eminently appealing piece shows Mozart at his imaginative best, with its sparkling melodies, ever-varied moods and rhythmic verve.

SHARE Mozart’s Serenade a glorious showcase for 13 CSO musicians and the singular Riccardo Muti
A seated maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the 13 musicians for Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major, K. 361/370a (“Gran Partita”) on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

A seated maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the 13 musicians for Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major, K. 361/370a (“Gran Partita”) on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The countdown to the June culmination of Riccardo Muti’s 13-year music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took a surprising turn Thursday evening with the first in a set four concerts.

To celebrate the end of such a significant era, it would be natural to expect the conductor and the orchestra to present big, blockbuster works or attention-grabbing premieres like they did last week with a program that included Rachmaninoff’s massive Symphony No. 2.

But this week, Muti took just the opposite tack and went small. Really small. Indeed, the second-half centerpiece of this concert — Wolfgang Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major, K. 361/370a (“Gran Partita”) — featured just 13 musicians, and, in fact, wasn’t an orchestral work at all.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Riccardo Muti, conductor; Robert Chen, violinist

Untitled

When: 1:30 p.m. May 19; 8 p.m. May 20; 7:30 p.m. May 23

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $35-$399

Info: cso.org

It was a commendably daring and unexpected repertoire choice, and it became abundantly evident at the end of the concert why Muti did it. He went around and shook the hand of each of the musicians and then stood not in front of them but side by side with them as they accepted the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

The message was clear. In addition to making these final weeks of the season a celebration of his tenure, Muti wanted to make sure they were also a celebration of the orchestra for which he obviously has great affection and respect.

There was another subtle message here as well, a fascinating linking of past and present that had to be more than a coincidence. Last week, the orchestra presented two works that had been played very early in the CSO’s history, and the same was true this week with the Serenade, which then music director Frederick Stock and orchestra presented for the first time in December 1914.

Put simply, this Serenade is an absolute masterpiece. Serenades were typically written for a wedding or some other event and were meant to be light, even a little frivolous in character. The exact origins of this seven-movement chamber piece are unclear, but what Mozart produced is a substantive, full-blown concert work.

Written in 1781 or 1782, this vibrant, eminently appealing piece shows Mozart at his imaginative best, with its sparkling melodies, ever-varied moods and rhythmic verve, especially in the sixth-movement Theme and Variations, which could be a compact work all in itself.

Most impressive, though, is Mozart’s creative and unlikely instrumentation, a kind of enlarged wind quintet including a double bass and two basset horns — rarely seen members of the clarinet family that are similar to alto clarinets but with a darker timbre. (They were played here with aplomb by assistant principal clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and J. Lawrie Bloom, making a guest appearance (following his retirement from the orchestra at the end of the 2019-2020 season.).

Rounding out the ensemble, seated at the front of the stage in a horse-shoe configuration, were two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets and four French horns, a mix that allows for unusual and ever-changing combination of instruments. Anchoring the ensemble were principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson and principal oboist William Welter, who were in top form here. The piece’s small scale allowed all 13 of these terrific musicians to be heard in a thrillingly, close-in way that is not usually possible.

This piece could certainly be performed without a conductor, but it no doubt helped having Muti (seated in keeping with the piece’s intimacy) to shape the overall arc and flow of the piece, offer cues as necessary and oversee the tempos and dynamics.

The rest of the program featured more standard fare, but modesty of scale reigned here as well, with Muti and a chamber-sized orchestra offering a spirited take on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. In keeping with the conductor’s apparent desire to showcase the orchestra, the soloist was the ensemble’s first-rate concertmaster, Robert Chen, who showed off his ample technique and smooth, honied tone in seemingly effortless fashion.

Opening the program was the compact Overture to Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa’s opera, “Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage),” which premiered two months after Mozart’s death in 1791.


The Latest
In offbeat comedy, ‘Anyone But You’ star confirms his leading-man credentials and shows sizzling chemistry with co-star Adria Arjona.
The boy was taken to Lurie’s Children’s Hospital, police said.
cfd-ambulance.jpg
1 dead, 2 hurt in Morgan Park wreck
A man, 45, was dead on the scene, police said.
Watching the wave of student protests on college campuses nationwide, a retired journalist recalls his own activism and writes: When these students reflect on this moment, I trust they will appreciate, like I have, our country’s commitment to reasonable free speech, peaceable assembly and democracy.
Despite the harm he’s causing her, she keeps letting him back into the house, putting herself and her child in danger.