From tuba concerto to ‘Mission: Impossible’ — CSO and Riccardo Muti achieve splendidly lighthearted program

A lively, engrossing program offered multiple insights into the maestro’s conducting style and what he has accomplished in Chicago.

SHARE From tuba concerto to ‘Mission: Impossible’ — CSO and Riccardo Muti achieve splendidly lighthearted program
Principal Tuba Gene Pokorny is the soloist in Lalo Schifrin’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti.

Principal Tuba Gene Pokorny is the soloist in Lalo Schifrin’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

As Riccardo Muti approaches the June 27 conclusion of his 13-year tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony, he has chosen to steer clear of mini-festivals, highlights series or showy blockbusters to mark his departure.

Indeed, with one notable exception — the June 23-25 performances of Beethoven’s mighty choral work, “Missa Solemnis” — he has stuck to more or less “normal” programs, signaling this is a transition, but it is by no means good-bye.

After all, he is already contracted to spend six weeks with the CSO during the next two seasons.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Riccardo Muti, conductor; Gene Pokorny, tubist

CSO review

When: 1:30 p.m. June 16 and 8 p.m. June 17

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $45-$399

Info: cso.org

But normal certainly does not mean ordinary, as Muti made clear Thursday evening with a lively, engrossing program that offered multiple insights into his conducting style and what he has accomplished in Chicago.

It used to be common to open symphony programs with overtures, but this tradition has faded in recent years as orchestras have chosen to use this slot for a short contemporary work or some other kind of musical morsel.

Muti, who has devoted much of his career to opera at Milan’s La Scala and elsewhere, has frequently programmed overtures during his tenure, sometimes reviving ones that have been unfairly forgotten.

CSO Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (Great) on Thursday night. 

CSO Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great”) on Thursday night.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

That was case Thursday when he began the concert with the Overture to “Indigo and the Forty Thieves,” a now little-known operetta by the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr. — a piece the CSO first performed in September 2013 with Muti on the podium.

Critics typically brush over these kinds of short openers to get to the meatier fare, but it’s important to dwell on this one a bit, because it says so much about Muti. He has wonderful feel for this kind of light, effervescent fare, giving it as much attention as he would a larger, more “serious” piece.

The maestro brought an ideally suited, free-spiritedness to this work, and sometimes he put his arms down and stopped beating time, just letting the musicians revel in this delightful, buoyant music. In short, the overture was great fun, like it’s supposed be, drawing cheers from the audience. And why not?

Next came the CSO’s first-ever performance of Lalo Schifrin’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (2016), hardly a work that one would expect to find on such a quasi-valedictory program. But it spoke to Muti’s affection for the orchestra’s musicians, especially his obvious respect for one of its best-known and longest serving members — principal tubist Gene Pokorny.

The tuba is sometimes unfairly stereotyped as lumbering and low-throated. But this piece gave Pokorny ample opportunity to impressively dispel such myths and show off the many, lesser-known faces of this instrument, with its fast passagework and high-register lines that, as Schifrin noted in his program notes, make the instrument sound like an extension of the French horn.

The performance drew multiple ovations from the audience, with Pokorny and Muti embracing, and the maestro even engaging in some comic high jinks, as he took the tuba from Pokorny and playfully marched off stage with it.

Then came a surprise — Muti and Pokorny rejoined the orchestra for an encore featuring Schifrin’s immediately identifiable theme for the 1960s television show, “Mission Impossible,” with the tubist highlighted in this arrangement by Calvin Custer. Again, a lot of fun — an aspect of Muti’s tenure that has perhaps been underestimated.

The evening ended with Franz Schubert’s nearly hour-long Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, “Great,” which Muti first conducted with the CSO on tour in 2012. Much more could be said, but he and the ensemble delivered a suitably nuanced performance with the light, buoyant touch this music requires.


The Latest
The longtime NBA executive, who was the Bulls general manager from 1969 to 1973, also helped found the Orlando Magic.
Vance went heavy on mentions of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio — and his humble Appalachian roots documented in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ — on the third night of the Republican National Convention.
After three piping plover chicks died in the span of five days, the Sun-Times spoke with wildlife experts to understand the risks the young creatures face.
Illinois National Republican Committeeman Richard Porter berated the scandal-plagued Florida congressman for trying to embarrass former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a television interview.