The 20th century is fading rapidly into the rear-view mirror, with much that is still in flux about our understanding of its boldest artistic expressions. But the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sold-out classical crowds this weekend are being given a startling history lesson none will soon forget. Music director Riccardo Muti, 76, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 62, have discovered in Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich expressions of such raw power — unleashing individual voices that seem to roar from the heart in the midst of a regime’s crushing insanity — that they seem to have been plucked from the internet.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

★★★★
When: 8 p.m. June 15; 8 p.m. June 16
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $36-$250
Info: cso.org

Few composers have been so whipsawed by war and revolution as Prokofiev, born in 1891, and Shostakovich, born in 1906. Both flourished in the wildly creative spring after the collapse of the tsars, then suffered in the Great Depression and, even worse, endured years of torment under Stalin’s thumb.

Prokofiev did not manage to outlive Stalin; in fact, they died on the same day in 1953. (Prior to the first performance of these concerts, on Thursday, Muti shared with visiting conductors a memory from the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter: Unable to find a single flower in all of Moscow to lay on Prokofiev’s coffin because of the Stalin tributes, Richter told Muti he had to settle for a sprig of pine.) Meanwhile, the mere fact that Shostakovich survived Stalin’s purges made him a subject of suspicion in the West, where the composer suffered the additional indignity of falling out of fashion.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs in concert with the CSO on June 14, 2018 at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

Yet if the music of these two composers receded as attention turned first to the international serialists and then to pop-inspired American voices, both Prokofiev and Shostakovich have come roaring back. The CSO concert was exemplary: Muti’s concept of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony could not sound bigger, or more modern, or more thrilling. And one can only hope there was a recording device switched on when Ma, Muti and the CSO took up Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto in a sonically splendid and altogether revelatory performance.

Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, from 1928, is brutally imposing, with plenty of opportunity for sneering woodwinds and brazenly dissonant brasses. The CSO’s impeccable strings were nudged to their threshold of wildness, barely contained. Even so — and this may seem impossible to imagine — in the midst of such colossal sonic force, the moments of greatest intensity shaped by Muti and the CSO musicians were the ones that hovered at that other threshold, when pinpoints of sound dissolved into translucence and fragile melodies drifted dreamlike, little respites from approaching doom.

What a sense of Chicago history there was in Orchestra Hall on Thursday. Prokofiev himself had been there to perform in 1918, and again in 1921. And it was Shostakovich’s friend, the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the first Chicago performances of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, in 1967, barely a year after it was penned. Yet this was Muti’s moment, and Ma’s.

For many years, Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto remained the popular favorite — with the best that could be said about the Second being that it embraced many of the muscular double-stops and terrific sing-song effects high on the A-string that were so beloved in its predecessor — but history has earned for the Second increasing respect. From Ma’s first brooding, uneasy notes, which broke into a severe, introspective soliloquy attended by the orchestra in complete silence, it was apparent that he had found its restless, demanding and yet despairing human spirit.

Here was the work in all its wisdom and weight. Far from expressing the thoughts of an indefatigable young man, Shostakovich comes across as one who cannot be anything but what he is, resigned to judgment, still seeking, pushing, reflecting on the world’s impossible craziness while attempting, fitfully, to outrun it.

There is poignant drollery from the chaos of the street: Shostakovich borrows the tune from a raggedy seller’s street cry, the so-called pretzel theme, “Bubliki, kupite, bubliki!” (pretzels, please buy, pretzels!) And there are remarkable percussion effects – a mocking xylophone, several abrupt cracks of the whip, and a soft tambourine, sounding almost like crickets in the night, to accompany the cellist’s quiet musings. The collaboration by Muti and the orchestra was custom-fit and breathtaking.

Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.

Maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in a program of Shostakovich and Prokofiev on June 14, 2018 at Symphony Center. |
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018