For his latest set of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music director Riccardo Muti ventured into repertory not typically associated with him — American music from the 19th and 20th centuries.

While Muti has performed and even recorded some of this music elsewhere, he has performed comparatively little of it with the Chicago Symphony. So, beginning Thursday in Orchestra Hall, it was refreshing to see him devote an entire program to it.

But to be clear, that’s not completely true. While the evening’s obvious centerpiece, Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, carries the moniker, “From the New World,” its American connections are shaky.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Riccardo Muti, conductor; John Malkovich, narrator
★★★
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $55-$280
Info: cso.org

The famed Czech composer wrote it in 1893 during an American residency that lasted nearly three years. Because he had outspokenly exhorted this country’s composers to make use of such indigenous musical sources as Native American chants and African-American spirituals, it was quickly assumed he had done the same.

But as program annotator Phillip Huscher painstakingly lays out in his accompanying notes, Dvorák did not actually incorporate any such American folk music despite his contradictory statements about the symphony. Indeed, he later said he only composed it “in the spirit of such American national melodies.”

Whatever the source material, the beloved piece arguably has an American sensibility, a notion only reinforced by its inclusion on a program with two unquestionably American works, and it is a masterpiece whatever its derivation.

Muti, who recorded the Symphony No. 9 in 1976 with London’s New Philharmonia Orchestra, brought obvious zeal to this work, shaping an agile, exhilarating performance that made this ultra-familiar music sound fresh, evocative and alive.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti in concert at Symphony Center Thursday night. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

He grabbed the audience’s attention right from the start with an emphatic take on the dynamic first movement, infusing it with upbeat tempos, vivid dynamic contrasts and well-delineated rhythms. Next came an expressive, lingering take on the long, slow second movement before the orchestra ramped up again for a driving, fleet-footed third movement and powerful conclusion.

There were plenty of notable performances across the orchestra, including Scott Hostetler’s eloquent take on the famous English horn solo in the second movement, strong solos from flutists Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson and Emma Gerstein and principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson and bold, compelling playing throughout from the brass section.

Not as memorable was the orchestra’s version of Aaron Copland’s popular “Lincoln Portrait,” which was commissioned as part of conductor André Kostelanetz’s undertaking to create a “musical portrait gallery of great Americans.” Written in 1942 in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the work’s uplifting words have continued to strike a chord with successive generations of audiences both in the United States and abroad.

Although Copland didn’t come along until several decades later, he was one of the American composers who did heed Dvorák’s call to draw on the country’s native musical material as he does in this abundantly famous work. The composer served as the narrator for a Chicago Symphony performance of it at the Ravinia Festival in 1962 — one of many notables who has taken on the role with the orchestra, including then-freshman Sen. Barack Obama in 2005.

If the playing here was not as inspired as it was in the symphony, Muti and the orchestra nonetheless delivered a lively performance that nicely captured the idiomatic flavor of this music. The letdown came with the somewhat subdued narration by John Malkovich, the esteemed stage and film actor and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member. The Illinois native delivered a reading that was clear and straightforward but lacked little in the way of dramatic punch.

The evening began on a gentle note with “Lyric for Strings,” a 1946 work by George Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. Originally titled “Lament,” it was meant as a memorial to the composer’s grandmother, who died the year before.

This fetching five-minute work, very much in the vein of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” from 10 years earlier, served as a fitting opener for this welcome American, or at least mostly American, musical offering.

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.