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CSO, Riccardo Muti revitalize ‘William Tell,’ ‘1812’ in Millennium Park concert

Music director Riccardo Muti (center) and Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Civic Orchestra of Chicago musicians take their bows after the "Concert for Chicago" Thursday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

Music director Riccardo Muti (center) and Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Civic Orchestra of Chicago musicians take their bows after the "Concert for Chicago" Thursday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. | Todd Rosenberg

It could have been a routine night of audience favorites Thursday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual free community concert was almost comically mainstream: Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture with its themes borrowed for countless cartoons, not to mention the “Lone Ranger” TV show; some dance music from a Verdi opera and, to hammer the familiar home, Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture.

But the music making is never routine when the CSO’s music director, Riccardo Muti, is on the podium. Muti is one of the world’s finest, most insightful conductors. But his sheer delight in the power of music is especially clear in programs like Thursday’s.

Relaxed, joking a little in remarks to the approximately 10,000 listeners who filled the pavilion’s seating area and vast lawn, he obviously enjoys the CSO’s annual community concerts. He has conducted nine of them since arriving as CSO music director in 2010, at the South Side’s Apostolic Church of God and high schools in Cicero and on the North Side as well as downtown at the Pritzker.

Every year he tells the audience that music is a mighty force, one with a unique ability to bring people together and, therefore, promote peace. On Thursday he and his musicians proved the point with a performance that combine almost unbelievable technical precision with profound emotional depth.

Forget “The Lone Ranger,” he told the crowd. Rossini’s Overture, like Verdi’s opera “The Sicilian vespers” and the “1812” Overture, is about war, the fight for liberty and freedom. Especially in the Rossini and Tchaikovsky overtures, we heard every nuance of those life-or-death struggles in the CSO’s performance.

There was extra energy onstage, thanks to a number of young musicians from the Civic Orchestra, the CSO’s training ensemble. To honor the Civic’s 100th anniversary season, they were sitting side by side for the first time at a community concert with their CSO mentors and coaches.

From the opening bars of “William Tell,” we knew this would be a remarkable concert. The slow, brooding solo from CSO principal cellist John Sharp took us far away from a bustling big city on a warm, late summer night. Muti is one of the world’s great opera conductors, and the deep, melancholy tones of Sharp’s solo conjured images of a lonely prisoner inside a cold, dank castle. When the strings began to stir, their short, furtive phrases interrupted by equally jittery woodwinds, we knew that clashing forces were stirring, rousing themselves for a hard-fought fight to the finish.

Rossini’s overture is full of sudden mood shifts, but Muti’s emphasis on the music’s expansive flow tied them together seamlessly. We could practically feel the sting of pelting rain as the strings erupted into furious whirlwinds and frantic winds called to each other above the storm. But when the air cleared, bucolic melodies unfurled, serene and unhurried.

When the “Lone Ranger” theme arrived, Muti’s attention to detail made it easy to forget stereotypical images of black-and-white TV cowboys rushing to vanquish yet another bad guy. The CSO brass sounded the brisk tattoo with proud precision, their short phrases as sharp and polished as a soldier’s dress uniform. The strings galloped at breathtaking speed, youthful, pumped on adrenaline and itching for a fight. This was not hackneyed TV background music. It was a portrait of real life in blazing Technicolor.

The Four Seasons dance suite from Verdi’s “The Sicilian vespers” was a compelling immersion in vibrant, 19th century romanticism. Each season, starting with Winter, is a set of dances, and Muti made things easy for the audience to follow, amiably holding up two, three or four fingers to indicate a new season’s arrival.

The dances are full of memorable tunes, but the performance dug well below their surface charm. Heard from seats close to the stage, the Pritzker’s sound system was in top form, allowing us to hear every intricately textured layer in the Winter dances. Throughout the suite, the CSO winds, including the first official appearance of brand-new Principal Oboe William Welter, came and went in lustrous, expressive solos.

Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, with its snatches of the French Marseillaise and the Russian Imperial Anthem, is blatantly designed to set an audience cheering. Muti and the CSO certainly obliged. But they offered something much more than a celebration of battlefield victory. In the final pages, the strings repeated a short, expectant phrase, bringing it lower and lower on the scale, playing it ever more slowly. As we listened we felt the real cost of war, the heavy weight of soldiers grinding across bloody, treacherous ground. We couldn’t help but wonder: At what price, peace?