At the end of last season, music director Riccardo Muti left us in the spiritual transcendence of Bruckner’s final symphony. This week officially opened the Chicago Symphony’s 2016-17 season, and Muti picked up right where he left off with another epic Bruckner canvas complemented by a pair of crowd-pleasing tone poems. Little fanfare marking these inaugural concerts was to be had, however, and Muti and the musicians got right down to business. The CSO boasts a distinguished lineage of committed Brucknerians – and indeed, Bruckner is programmed with a frequency atypical of most American orchestras – and Muti’s Bruckner continues to be on par with the finest.

Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

With its endlessly lyrical melodies, Bruckner’s Seventh is certainly one of his most appealing. In the characteristically spacious opening movement, one was immediately struck by the nobility Muti imbued in the primary theme outlining the E major triad, first presented in the cellos and violas. While time may seem suspended in this vast expanse, Muti’s keen direction ensured that matters were never rudderless. Phrases were meticulously articulated, the sonata form – albeit on a grand scale – clearly defined. The movement’s ebb and flow led with purpose to its close in which granite blocks of sound, built like the nave of a cathedral, coalesced into clangorous resound.

The achingly beautiful slow movement was heightened from the onset with the warmth emanating from the quartet of Wagner tubas, only to be rivaled by the extravagant richness of the strings. An occasional uncoordinated entrance wasn’t enough to detract from the orchestra’s very high level of playing. Bruckner purportedly wrote this movement’s crashing climax upon hearing the news that his idol Wagner had died, and Muti elected to augment with cymbal and triangle – while musicologists may debate whether this constitutes echt-Bruckner, the effect for the audience is undeniably striking in this extraordinary paean. And surely no composer was as successful in translating Wagner’s aesthetic into a purely orchestral language as Bruckner.

Bruckner’s scherzos are the most patently indebted to classical antecedents, but once again with a greatly expanded sense of proportion. Christopher Martin’s trumpet solos were a shining highlight, and there is good news for Chicagoans in that he hasn’t fully decamped to the New York Philharmonic, reportedly expected to return to Chicago on occasion throughout the season. The finale echoed the nobility of the opening, leading to a regal, majestic conclusion.

Riccardo Muti on opening night © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti on opening night
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The program began with two certified symphonic showpieces. Mussorgsky’s durable Night on Bald Mountain was effectively a postscript to last season’s exploration of works which the CSO premiered, as recent findings of archivist Frank Villella determined that credit for the first American performance does indeed belong to Chicago, given at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Punchy passages in the brass and pungent dissonances displayed the grotesqueries of this witches’ Sabbath, the pile-driving intensity eventually conceding to the church bells to conclude in quiet reverence. Of particular note were Stephen Williamson’s passages in the clarinet’s upper register and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s flowing flute lines.

Strauss’ Don Juan rounded off the first half. Despite the CSO’s peerless reputation in this master of orchestral effect, Strauss isn’t a composer that has often turned up on a Muti program. The bold opening theme was played with a testosterone-fueled swagger, the musicians easily surmounting the substantial technical demands. In the quieter, more reflective moments, concertmaster Robert Chen’s high-reaching solos had one listening with rapt attention, and oboist Alex Klein’s extended love song was given with a sumptuous lyricism. Throughout this work of extremes, Muti painted a variegated tapestry of orchestral color. Like the rest of the program, at its core this was a celebration of the power and brilliance of the orchestra, executed with an astonishing level of virtuosity.