Saturday night was the Symphony Ball, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual gala.  Although the evening entailed many diversions enjoyed by its patrons, at its core was an intriguing program led by Riccardo Muti. In the current season, the CSO is highlighting works they have given as world or US premières throughout the course of its distinguished history, and the first two works on the program fitted the bill. 

John Corigliano’s brief fanfare Campane di Ravello opened the concert. Dating from 1987, it was written in honor of Sir Georg Solti’s 75th birthday and features an obvious invocation of “Happy Birthday” in the titular bells and throughout the orchestra. Beginning quietly, it quickly coalesces into clangorous blocks of sound, the resonating bells vividly bringing to life this Italian town in which many artists – including Wagner – found inspiration. This was a rare but welcome opportunity to hear Muti conduct a contemporary American work.

We remained in Muti’s homeland for the next work, Elgar’s lavish tone poem In the South (Alassio). The sweeping, technicolor opening – reminiscent of Strauss’ Don Juan – transports listeners to the picturesque Italian coast. It’s a piece of great contrasts, from the exultant mood of the beginning giving way to the gentle canto populare, affectionately played in the viola by assistant principal Liu-Kuo Chang and augmented in the horn by Daniel Gingrich.  Like the preceding work, this is another testament to the profound inspiration Italy has given to generations. Muti elicited high-caliber playing throughout in this brilliant orchestral showpiece.

On the subject of showpieces, few works allow for a more dazzling display of orchestral virtuosity than Ravel’s glittering orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Conductor and orchestra alike easily surmounted the challenges in this memorable performance. The Promenades, which open the work and reoccur on multiple occasions, act as points of continuity and familiarity: a veritable place of refuge in this phantasmagoric journey though the eponymous pictures. Most feature orchestration heavy in the brass, admirably led by principal trumpet Christopher Martin. Nonetheless, I appreciated the way Muti made the familiar melody sound afresh each time – for instance, the Promenade following Bydło is focused more on the winds, and while it was previously martial and almost belligerent, here it was wistful and elegiac.

The aggressive energy of Gnomus was heightened by Mary Sauer’s contributions on the celesta. Il vecchio castello features an instrument infrequently heard at the symphony – the alto saxophone, very finely played by Timothy McAllister. The darkness and foreboding of Bydło was nearly overwhelming, the CSO’s lowest register taking over and propelled by the grinding basses. The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells was a complete foil; its featherweight and fleeting playing almost comical in effect. The Market Place at Limoges was vividly brought to life in this colorful vignette, but darkness returns as Mussorgsky guides us into the Catacombs

Sparse orchestrations create a sense of unease, in no way alleviated by the final mournful Promenade (Cum mortuis in lingua mortua), and even less so by the incendiary Baba-Yaga which had some of the evening’s most impressive playing. This builds up dramatically to the famous Great Gate of Kiev, its stirring brass chorales and use of bells in the final moments bringing the piece to a jaw-dropping conclusion. With the Friday night’s performance of Mahler in Millennium Park and the previous night’s opening concert of Mozart and Beethoven, the CSO’s 125th season is off to an auspicious start.