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Muti, CSO and pianist Gerstein in glorious form for final 2017 program

Kirill Gerstein in a performance of Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor," with Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

“Puccini was calling,” quipped Maestro Riccardo Muti on Thursday evening as he acknowledged the audience’s delight at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first ever performance of “Preludio sinfonico,” a luminous 12-minute piece penned by the Italian composer in 1882, while he was still a conservatory student and some years away from writing the operas for which he would become so famous.

Indeed, Puccini did seem to be calling as Muti and his musicians began their final program together for 2017 with an entrancing rendering of this dreamy, rapturous work that opened with the sounding of the winds, moved into plaintive passages by the strings, and later called on the brass and hushed timpani. Along with way, Puccini captured the “voices” of the various instruments in the reduced ensemble for which the piece is scored, deploying each section of the orchestra to exquisite effect in many beautifully sustained, melodic passages that often were laced with a quiet gravitas. This pattern would repeat itself throughout the evening.

Highly recommended
Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
$34 – $221
(312) 294-3000;
Run time:
2 hours with one intermission

Maestro Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Puccini, Richard Strauss and Brahms. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The Puccini piece (clearly mother’s milk to Muti), was only the start of a concert in which the CSO has never sounded more glorious. It was followed by the theatrical sleight-of-hand of Richard Strauss and his “Suite from Der Burger als Edelmann (inspired by Moliere’s play, “Le bourgeois gentilhomme,” and by the ballet written for it by his musical collaborator, Lully). Then, to top it all off, there was pianist Kirill Gerstein, whose rendering of Brahms’ ever seductive “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor” was so brilliantly integrated with the orchestra that the monumental work almost took on the quality of chamber music. Magic.

Gerstein warmed up a bit by joining the orchestra for the Strauss work –  a wonderfully playful collection of fleet and fanciful dances (minuet, courante, gavotte, subtly Viennese waltz and more) that double as whimsical character studies. And again, the orchestra was in full flight, with concertmaster Robert Chen leading the exemplary string section, the horns in full fervor, a birdlike flute passage, and the fanciful use of triangles and other percussion.

And then came the Brahms, the masterful work written when the composer was just 24 and had gone through tumultuous times with his friends, Robert and Clara Schumann.

Gerstein is a fascinating pianist possessed of  something far beyond bravura technique and with not a hint of flamboyance. He brings a physical strength to the keyboard, but that power is intriguingly measured and unmannered – a compelling blend of the cerebral and emotional, and so deftly nuanced that declamatory passages flow seamlessly into singing, lyrical ones. In fact, the pianist’s interpretation of this familiar concerto had an almost novelistic quality, particularly in the central adagio movement that was so personal, and so full of emotional ferment, that it might have been a confession.

In fact, there were many times when it felt as if Gerstein was actually writing the work as opposed to interpreting it. And he, Muti, and the orchestra were so ideally connected that the solo piano passages (from their rippling arpeggios to their thundering chords) formed a perfect continuation of a musical line. This thrilling connectivity was roundly applauded as Muti not only embraced Gerstein but singled out the sublime skill of every musician in his orchestra.

[Note: Following the Nov. 18 concert Gerstein will be in the Grainger Ballroom for a CD signing.]

Chicago Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Robert Chen. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)