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A new gem, an orchestral mountain and more at CSO

A brief but wondrous world premiere, an opera overture that has long been part of pop culture, and a mammoth symphony that showcases the brilliance of every section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Maestro Riccardo Muti. That is the nutshell description of the orchestra’s latest program which will have its final performance here Sunday, and will subsequently be performed during the orchestra’s upcoming tour to Kansas City (Oct. 11) and Berkeley, Ca. (Oct. 13).

Highly recommended
When: Oct 1 at 3 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $34 – $220
Info: (312) 294-3000;
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
with one intermission

Maestro Riccardo Muti congratulated Mead Composer-in-Residence-Elizabeth Ogonek following the Chicago Symphony Orchestra world premiere of her work, “All These Lighted Things.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The concert also was an exercise in very different forms of extreme listening.

Muti and the CSO got things off to a wild and playful start with a rousing performance of Rossini’s familiar “William Tell Overture,” whose galloping theme was long ago co-opted for use as the theme of “The Lone Ranger” television show. (At its end Muti turned to the audience to explain its real history involving Tell’s reputation as a Swiss folk hero who opposed a dictator.)

But as with everything Muti interprets, this was no simple crowd pleaser. He and the orchestra make you listen with the greatest intensity – from the first sound of a solo cello, to a storm of brass and percussion, to the furious bowing of the string section. And because this was the overture to an opera, the melodies became potent instruments of storytelling with an almost cinematic intensity.

In her fascinating world premiere work, “All These Lighted Things (three little dances for orchestra),” Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, makes you listen in a far different way. Taking inspiration from a line in a Thomas Merton poem about the progress of light throughout the day, at moments it feels as if Ogonek has found a way to put your ear close to the soil and let you hear the generally unheard buzz and clatter of a microscopic insect world beneath the surface.

Scored for strings, reeds and brass, it also involves a huge array of percussion, including timpani (the excellent David Herbert), along with crotales, marimba, slapstick, woodblock, rainsticks, triangles, Burma bells, Chinese opera gongs, vibraphone, Japanese singing bowls, cymbals and more, superbly played by Cynthia Yeh and Patricia Dash. The ultimate effect of this 15-minute work is one of total aural enchantment as delicate melodic riffs cede easily into more dissonant passages. There is a sort of ultra-modern fairy tale aura to it all, with the subtlest hints of Stravinsky along the way, and a lovely, gently swirling finale. It is a new work that deserves many hearings, and one that is sure to offer additional pleasures with each of them.

And then there was the big work of the evening – Bruckner’s late 19th century “Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (Romantic),” a roiling mass of soundworks – a manufactured term, but one that suggests the lush, propulsive feel of the piece, which deploys every section of the orchestra to bravura effect, yet can also grow repetitive. Each movement is something of its own symphony, but all four of them stacked atop each other never seem to coalesce into a larger overall statement.

Maestro Muti clearly loves Bruckner and without question this work is a great gift to the CSO’s wonderful brass section, with the conductor offering a special much-deserved hug to acting principal horn Dan Gingrich and his colleagues during bows.

It is the horns that open the symphony with a solemn sound soon underscored by the hum of the strings that quickly grows into a great explosion of sound. The musical hunt is on. Bruckner also has a great flair for moving the strings from the sweetest passages to moments of urgency and triumph, all with a full, singing quality and a feel for conjuring the density of orchestral sound. At one point a floating line by the flute cedes to a return massing of the strings in music that at times can sound surprisingly modern. The gentle beats of a timpani drum can lead to a rapturously melodic sequence. And Muti and his musicians finesse every emotional shift with an almost magical precision.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Cynthia Yeh, principal percussion (from left) and CSO percussion Patricia Dash were crucial to the world premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek’s “All These Lighted Things,” played Thursday night at Symphony Center. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)