To open its 2017-18 subscription series Saturday evening, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went with proven masterpieces and star power – a tried-and-true formula that proved once again to be a big winner.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Riccardo Muti; violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
The virtually sold-out program in Orchestra Hall centered on two 19th-century stalwarts and a pair of crowd-pleasing, blue-chip artists as conductor and soloist who know how to deliver the goods – music director Riccardo Muti and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
The one departure from the familiar was Krzysztof Penderecki’s “The Awakening of Jacob,” a jolting blast of modernity from 1974 that began the concert and proved to be an ideal contrast to all that followed. It was a welcome surprise, considering that such newer repertoire, aside from the orchestra’s own occasional commissions, has been relatively rare during Muti’s tenure.
Penderecki, a Polish composer born in 1933, sculpted an alluringly strange, alien soundscape in this eight-minute work that is probably best known for its inclusion on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 thriller, “The Shining.” The piece opens gradually with the rumble of the bass drum and growl of the lower brass. Soon come other odd, discordant sounds, cymbals placed on timpani heads and unusual effects from the gong, and, later, high-pitched screeches and dizzying, almost siren-like slides in the strings. But nothing was more disorienting than the airy, other-worldly sounds of the ocarina – a kind of vessel flute with four to 12 finger holes. At times during this work, all of the orchestra’s wind players doubled on contemporary versions of this ancient instrument.
“The Awakening” slowly builds to a climatic cacophonous chorus and then fades out much as it came in – a simple work in many ways yet hauntingly effective. Muti showed himself to be right at home in this unconventional sonic realm, delivering an intense, sharply etched take with appropriately measured pacing.
As appealing as the opener was in its own piercing way, it merely served as an appetizer. The evening’s main attraction was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, with Mutter demonstrating again why she is consistently ranked among the instrument’s great exponents. A few more sparks of spontaneity would have been welcome at times, but there was so much to like about the veteran German violinist’s superlative performance that any such quibbles were quickly forgotten.
Displaying utter self-assurance and all the technical panache she needed, she delivered a comfortably elegant interpretation with every detail immaculately in its place and a warm, silken tone that was ceaselessly ingratiating. Muti proved to be a wonderfully sensitive accompanist, as he led the orchestra in a vibrant, responsive dialogue with Mutter and made sure that it was constantly in perfect balance and never overshadowed her.
The violinist is a master showwoman, using her glamour to full advantage and playfully trying to get the orchestra to stand as she basked in the cheers and applause afterward. As an encore, she dashed off the Gigue from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004.
As strong as the first two offerings were, the evening’s high point arguably came on the second half with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61. Much has been made of the orchestration imbalances and what one critic called “formal awkwardnesses” in the composer’s four symphonies, but none of that mattered here. Although the 1845-46 work was written in the shadow of Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9, Schumann was thinking in a smaller and more inward way, looking at Beethoven’s art songs and earlier works by Bach, with references to both sprinkled across this work.
Muti was at his expressive best here, impeccably shaping dynamics and bringing a gentle buoyancy and subtle clarity to this entrancing, authoritative interpretation, especially in the breathtaking slow third movement, which was a genuine “Wow!” moment in every way.
Enhancing that section were several fetching solos, including those by principal flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (who also had a few notable exchanges with Mutter in the concerto) and Alexander Vvedenskiy. The latter normally serves as principal oboe for the Louisville Orchestra, and he was probably having one of the biggest nights of his life sitting in as guest principal here.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.