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CSO opens season as talks continue; treats full house to Mozart, Beethoven

Though the specter of a work stoppage has hung in the air this week, Thursday night’s opening concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2015-16 season went ahead as negotiations on a new labor contract continue between management and the musicians.

That was good news for area classical fans who, as the evening’s sold-out audience made clear, were eager to hear the ensemble back in Orchestra Hall after its annual summer residency at the Ravinia Festival and a short break.

Following a rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” music director Riccardo Muti picked up a microphone and spoke about the symphony’s season-long celebration of its 125th anniversary, asking for a round of applause for all the orchestra’s current and past musicians.

While there was nothing lightweight about the performances, it nonetheless seems fair to say that Muti and the orchestra eased into its new season, devoting most of this one-off program to two comfortable, easy-to-like classics – Wolfgang Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.

That said, Muti took a welcome break from the conventional for the concert’s opener, beginning not with a bang but a whisper. He and the musicians presented a rare performance of Franz Liszt’s 13th and final symphonic tone poem, “From the Cradle to the Grave,” written in 1881-82 toward the end of the composer’s life.

Though this meditative work does not have the depth of, say, Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” which delves into similar themes of life and rebirth on a much larger scale, it nonetheless packs surprising emotional weight and affect into its 14 or so minutes.

Muti clearly has a strong feeling for this piece, and he made a compelling case for it, offering an eloquent, understated interpretation that began with a suitably delicate, hushed take on the lovely lullaby that evokes birth.

Then the mood sharply turned, as the inevitable struggles of life came to the fore, with the lower strings and the rest of the orchestra offering a bold, assertive yet not overdone take on the agitated middle section. Darkness and disappointment clouds the opening of the third section, as death comes into view, but the gloom dissipates when the opening lullaby returns as charming and comforting as before, completing the unstoppable cycle of life.

Next came Mozart’s masterful Symphony No. 40. While a period-instrument take on this work would likely have been a bit more lean and transparent, Muti’s lithe, captivating version offered all the buoyancy, lightness and rhythmic pulse that this composer’s music demands.

Perhaps most important, there were many moments during this work when Muti stopped beating time and offered a simple gesture here or a cue there, smartly allowing the music room to breathe and the phrasing to emerge in its own organic way.

But as an ardent standing ovation at the end helped reinforce, the unquestioned highlight of this concert was Beethoven’s timeless Symphony No. 5, which is as close to perfect as any work ever composed in this form.

Right from their bold, purposeful take on the work’s iconic opening motif, Muti and the orchestra made sure that the symphony was every bit the rousing, exhilarating and inspiring experience it should be.

Ignoring the reality that it has played this piece dozens of times before, the orchestra brought a freshness and intensity to its playing, delivering the kind of all-in performance that one might expect at the height at the season but not necessarily as things are just picking up again.

There were stand-out moments aplenty, notably the sense of suspenseful anticipation that Muti and the orchestra generated as the third movement flowed into the fourth and thrillingly resolved with the lightning finale.

Deserving mention for his solo work here and in the other two selections was guest principal flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, who impressed with his pleasingly graceful, silvery sound.

Chicago Symphony; Riccardo Muti, conductor

Symphony Ball concert, including Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”

7 p.m. Saturday

Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Concert tickets only, $25-$235