Virtuosity Bodes Well for Start of New Chicago Symphony Season

United StatesUnited States  Rota, Ibert, Tchaikovsky: Matthieu Dufour (flute), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (music director), Symphony Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago. 23.9.2011. (JLZ)

Nino Rota: Music from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)
Jacques Ibert: Flute Concerto, Op. 37
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

During this concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music director Riccardo Muti spoke to the Symphony Hall audience twice to praise the ensemble’s superb musicianship. This praise is deserved in that the three different works were connected not through any abstract relationship or forced association, but through the strong execution that emerged. The CSO’s high standards were especially apparent in Tchaikovsky’s familiar Fifth Symphony. In this well-known score, details were not always a result of the podium presence, either: eye contact among performers, deft page-turning on shared stands, and dynamic playing in accompaniment figures. Familiar music is never taken for granted with the CSO, which made the most of Tchaikovsky’s colors and textures.

While some might quibble with Muti’s interpretation, the musicians gave an intense performance. Muti emphasized the spans between dynamic levels, articulations and brought out details that are sometimes glossed over. But in each movement, he sometimes interrupted the flow with pauses that made the symphony seem episodic. In the first movement’s atmospheric introduction, he set up the main theme by demonstrating the differences in tempo; but the contrasting moods of the second movement were less convincing. Veteran hornist Dale Clevenger gave a model performance of the famous second movement horn solo, all the more demanding because of the lingering cadences. A similar case could be made later, for David McGill’s outstanding bassoon solos. At the same time, the brass had burnished and incisive color. Trumpeter Chris Martin brought finesse to his solos in which the quiet passages remained distinct, while the more extroverted ones found voice without overbalancing the ensemble. In the finale, Muti created a virtuosic effect, with his use of tempo unifying the movement.

The Ibert Flute Concerto – from 1933 and quite different from the Tchaikovsky – has a conventional three-movement structure, but with unconventional and inspired content. CSO principal flute Matthieu Dufour offered an impressive interpretation of this demanding, infrequently performed score, making it seem comfortably familiar with effortless playing and impeccable phrasing. The languid second movement stood out for the clarity of the complex chords supporting the solo lines, not only for the flute but for other individual instruments. The Finale, a rondo with sharply contrasting episodes, nevertheless remained a remarkable whole, and with Dufour’s rich, full tone engaging the audience, they responded with enthusiasm.

The program opened with a suite by Nino Rota – one of Muti’s teachers – from the 1961 Visconti film The Leopard (based on the 1957 Lampadusa novel). Richly scored, the suite received a vivid reading, and as much as one should laud the Criterion Collection for its impressive release of The Leopard onDVD, this live performance brought out even more nuances ofRota’s score. And while normally his music would be grasped more fully in the film’s context, Muti, through his championing of the piece, shows that it can work just as well on its own. It bodes well for the coming season when the CSO can make such challenging and seldom-played music seem as familiar as Tchaikovsky.

James L. Zychowicz