Muti and CSO Offer Hometown Preview of European Tour

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Debussy, Panufnik, Stravinsky: Christopher Martin (trumpet), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor) Orchestra Hall, Chicago. 19/25.9.14; 4.10.14. (DP)

Conductor Riccardo Muti, principal trumpet Christopher Martin and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform Panufnik’s “Concerto in modo antico.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Op. 18
Tchaikovsky: Suite from The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66a
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Op. 36
Berlioz: Waverly Overture, Op. 1
Debussy: La mer
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Op. 36
Panufnik: Concerto in modo antico (Christopher Martin, trumpet)
Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D Major (Polish)


In the fall of 2010, Riccardo Muti began his music directorship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a free concert at Millennium Park that drew some 25,000 people which at the time, was viewed somewhat as an anomaly. Four years later, that Muti and the Orchestra could still draw over 20,000 people to another free “Concert for Chicago,” as the evening was dubbed, is not only a remarkable testament to the extraordinary partnership that has been forged between the conductor and the musicians, but to the way Chicagoans have responded to that partnership.

Whether he is throwing out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game, performing “Chelsea Dagger” in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey to spur the team on to a Stanley Cup, giving a commencement address alongside of Stevie Wonder, bantering with the rock group Chicago, writing an op-ed in The New York Times on the charms of his adoptive city, appearing on CNN’s Chicagoland, discussing his favorite area Italian restaurants on the local news or culture with Pope Francis, or joking with a national convention of music critics, Muti has become Chicago’s most charming, eloquent and high-profile cultural ambassador.

Central to Muti’s vision has been to open up the doors of the CSO to all: he brings in busloads of seniors to hear open rehearsals, works with young musicians and community orchestras on his days off, has a musical presence across Chicago neighborhoods, and visits prisons to bring music and hope to the incarcerated. And whenever too much is made of his side of the extraordinary Muti/CSO equation, the conductor himself constantly reminds the city what a “jewel” it has in its hometown orchestra.

During his fall Chicago residency, Muti presented many of the works that he and the CSO will be taking with them on a five-city tour of Europe (Oct. 20 – Nov. 2). He has thus far done little Tchaikovsky in Chicago, but this year is doing a complete symphony cycle and other works across the season as part of a focus on comparing and contrasting two Russian masters. One is popular—Tchaikovsky—and the other is less-known and to Muti’s mind, unjustly neglected: Scriabin.

The Millennium Park concert, an all-Tchaikovsky affair, opened with Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearian-inspired tone poem The Tempest, a humorous salute to the fortitude of the thousands who sat out in the rain two years ago, the last time Muti and the CSO played in the park. This time, the orchestral storm they whipped up was formidable indeed, and stood in direct contrast to the dry, perfect autumn evening. Nonetheless, the introspective tender sections stood out, depicting the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand.

A suite from The Sleeping Beauty spotlighted tempos that might have been brisk for dancers, but ideal for an outdoor orchestral concert. As the introduction blossomed, so did the brilliance of the sound; the iconic climactic Waltz was dazzling in its energy and nuance.

The party piece of the evening was the Fourth Symphony, a work that was often performed by the CSO under former music directors Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, and the first Tchaikovsky symphony performed by Muti in Chicago. Muti had recorded the Fourth twice: a rather frantic and brass top-heavy rendition as a young conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and a later, more relaxed and nuanced traversal with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Millennium Park performance and a week later, the indoor Orchestra Hall subscription repeat of the Fourth, were revelatory—no small feat for a work so familiar and overplayed. Muti reminded us what is special about this music: not bombast, but an endless variety of orchestral color made all the more exquisite by the conductor’s constant care and attention to detail, coupled with common purpose across every section of the orchestra.

The ovation was instantaneous and in the case of the park, overwhelming with the throngs instantly on their feet and cheering; Muti and the CSO players were obviously touched and after several curtain calls, Muti was moved enough to speak to the crowd before calling it an evening.

“Did you like the concert?” Muti asked, to a deafening, rock-concert like response. “Did you know that the Chicago Symphony is one of the greatest orchestras in the world?” As the crowd roared in approval, Muti prodded with, “Si?” and then responded with, “Bene. We are happy to play for you. Don’t forget: for your spiritual and cultural bread, come to the concert hall—for your future, for your children, for your grandchildren.”

Before the Tchaikovsky Fourth was a colorful traversal of Berlioz’ Waverly Overture—a CSO first—and an introspective performance of Debussy’s La mer, both part of a season-long emphasis on French music.

The most eclectic program of all, however, was a dress rehearsal of the program Muti and the CSO will play at the orchestra’s first-ever concert in Warsaw, Poland. This is significant for the CSO, since Chicago is said to have the largest Polish population of any city outside of Warsaw.

Opening the evening was Concerto in modo antico by Andrzej Panufnik, the extraordinary 20th-century Polish composer whose centennial is being celebrated this year. Although these were the first CSO performances of the Concerto, Panufnik was no stranger to Chicago. In fact he was commissioned to write a new work for the CSO’s 1991 centennial and conducted the world premiere of his Symphony No. 10 with the CSO in February of 1990. On that occasion, Panufnik even attended an intimate CSO media lunch to promote the premiere. This writer ended up seated next to him and found him a shy but fascinating conversationalist who was able to paint quite a vivid picture of the contemporary Polish music scene from the war years, during which he formed a piano duo with Witold Lutaslawski. During those years, all of Panufnik’s previous scores had been lost, through the Soviet occupation and the late years of the 20th century.

Panufnik had escaped Poland for England in 1954 because of Soviet interference with his work; his name and music were subsequently censored in his homeland for more than twenty years, which only served to make his works an underground phenomenon. Even after his music could be officially performed again, Panufnik refused to return to Poland until as he put it, “the Communists were no longer in power.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he spoke of how he was anticipating a planned homecoming for the first time in decades, a national event in which Panufnik would be welcomed home as a national hero.

Panufnik cataloged “Old Polish Music” for the Concerto (originally collected for a film score), an example of cobbling together from surviving fragments of pieces of Polish composers of the 17th and 18th centuries that were largely lost, unknown or not in performable condition.

The fifteen-minute work for trumpet, strings and harp (second harp and harpsichord optional, although Muti chose not to use them) features seven small contrasting sections performed as one continuous movement.

CSO principal trumpeter Christopher Martin, who was introduced to the piece at Muti’s suggestion, certainly put his own stamp on it, performing it more as the contemporary movie music it began life as than in a truly Baroque style. Martin’s sound was wide, jagged and vibrato-laden rather than the more slender and florid sound of a Bach-like trumpet, but the approach worked well. His long notes in the slower sections were beautifully rendered with immense expression and introspection, moods also evoked by the strings.

The 1919 revision of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite was given a tour de force performance, a warm-up to the many colors and timbres to be found in Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, nicknamed Polish because of its Polonaise-like finale. Juxtaposing this with Stravinsky was in part a tribute to the fact that Stravinsky had championed the piece, even having conducted it with the CSO. The five-movement work is less melodic-driven than the more well-known symphonies to follow, but the orchestration comes across as more vibrant, at least in the hands of Muti and the CSO, even if the structure of the movements come off as more conventional.

Not known at curtain time, the initial subscription performance of the Tchaikovsky Third would be the last hometown appearance of celebrated principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, who abruptly announced his departure from the CSO, effective Nov. 4, to become principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2015. Before the start of the season, it had been speculated that Dufour would be staying in Chicago for the season, as the Berlin position begins in the fall of 2015. (Dufour had also flirted with the same position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic a few seasons ago, but ended up abruptly returning to Chicago.) For most of his final two weeks of Chicago concerts, Dufour took sick days, but is expected to play on the European tour. Alas, these will be his final CSO performances.

Dennis Polkow         

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