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Under Muti, the CSO’s musicians probe the human voice in their instruments

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in exceptionally glorious form at the moment. For proof you need look no further than the final concerts of 2015 being led by Maestro Riccardo Muti.

Listening to this ideally counterpointed program, which is bookended by two very different symphonies – Prokofiev’s airy, zestily dancing “Symphony No. 1 in D Major” (dubbed the “Classical”), and Beethoven’s grandly familiar yet utterly fresh-sounding “Symphony No. 8 in F Major” – suggests part of what is at work. But in many ways it is Scriabin’s fiendishly difficult and fiercely modern symphony, “Prometheus, The Poem of Fire,” as well as Beethoven’s brief but lush “Coriolan Overture,” that get to the core of the matter, and suggest the distinctive effect Muti elicits from his musicians.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein performed ....with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Riccardo Muti. (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Pianist Kirill Gerstein is soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Scriabin’s “Prometheus, The Poem of Fire.” (Photo: Marco Borggreve)


Highly recommended

When: Dec. 5 at 8 p.m.

Where: Symphony Center,

220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $30 – $295

Info: (312) 294-3000;


Run time: 2 hours and

15 minutes with one intermission

Muti, of course, has a passion for opera. But even in purely symphonic pieces he possesses a unique way of tapping into the human voices of a score, so that his musicians often seem to be “singing” through their instruments as opposed to just playing them. Without ever compromising the pure beauty of the sound, this approach ideally crystallizes the drama in each work and encourages you to breathe along with it.

Scriabin’s powerhouse “Prometheus,” written in 1910, is in many ways as mold-breaking as Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which was written three years later. Even more astonishing is that the music for its solo pianist is as jarring and discordant as anything a free jazz pianist like Cecil Taylor only began writing in the 1960s.
As always, Muti tapped the ideal artist for soloist. Though initially classically trained in his native Russia, Kirill Gerstein was drawn to jazz from early on, and after moving to the U.S. at 14 studied jazz piano at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. His playing in the Scriabin was brilliant, and merged seamlessly with the supremely complex soundscape of Scriabin’s work – a fascinating piece that conjures the ever-shifting nature of fire – the “gift” the Greek god, Prometheus, is credited with stealing from Mount Olympus and giving to mankind.
Alternately stormy and flickering, unpredictable, and more fluid than percussive (with the horns adding particular color and mystery), “Prometheus” is truly a “poem” – a wild, free verse exercise as full of mystery as the flaming phenomenon it conjures. And though the massive Chicago Symphony Chorus, directed by Duain Wolfe, plays a relatively small role in the work, its humming wall of sound drove the work to its climactic moments.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein performed ....with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Riccardo Muti. (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, primarily for strings and winds, arrives with an irresistible sweep of sound. The giddy energy that sets it into playful chase mode from the start cedes to a more meditative slow movement (with the horn playing lines suggestive of the urbane conversations in a Chekhov play), before moving into a gorgeously harmonized assemblage of strings. The third movement, a gavotte, is notably elegant and sophisticated, with the edgy delicacy of a motif later elaborated on in his ballet, “Romeo and Juliet.” And the whole thing culminates in a frenzy of speed and light that brings the work’s spinning sensations full circle.

The “Coriolan Overture” that opens the second half of the program is something of an eight-minute play – fully Shakespearean in nature, although it was inspired by a play penned by Beethoven’s friend. With its urgent, quasi-operatic opening, the lush work builds into an expansive fusion of sounds before resolving into a softer, more lyrical line and then growing fully magisterial and tragic once again. Beethoven – a master of the art of tension and release – is neatly matched by Muti whose four final baton signals could not have been more precision-tooled.

Finally, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8,” with its triumphal, singing opening theme and its dynamic shifts of mood that weave a great tapestry of human feeling. The CSO’s string section is a glory, and the golden sound of the horns also stood out in this piece that moves from a scampering sweetness to agitation in the blink of an eye. The work draws to a close with a jubilant sense of man not just surviving, but prevailing. Reason enough to mark your calendar for Muti’s return to the orchestra in February.