The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti explored an interesting dichotomy of programming, with the first half comprising canonical works from the Classical period, and the second featuring less familiar pieces from the 20th century.

Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg
The evening began with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3. One of four overtures the composer wrote for his opera Leonore (later renamed Fidelio), this iteration is the most popular and enduring. Characterized by interplay between dark musical elements and a heroic theme, the latter was portrayed beautifully by the CSO’s new principal flute, Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (formerly principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). Höskuldsson’s tone had a pleasing, silvery ring, and he conveyed a sense of improvisation in his creative rendition of the famous theme. Principal bassoonist Keith Buncke harmonized sensitively for a lovely duet.  

Following Leonore came a piece Beethoven much admired, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. The first movement opens with ominous urgency, portrayed well by the CSO strings. Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes provided a deft touch as the soloist. Delicately crafted phrases from Andsnes seemed to inspire the CSO to respond in kind with a light sound appropriate for the Classical style. While Andsnes’ sensitivity was mostly beyond reproach, I did feel there were certain, forceful moments in the concerto that could have afforded more brawn from the soloist. Apart from these instances, it was successful collaboration with some particularly sublime playing from both soloist and orchestra in the tender second movement.

One of the most successful works on the program was Hindemith’s Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass. The CSO continues a retrospective during its 125th anniversary season, and Hindemith features prominently in the orchestra’s history, having in fact conducted this same piece in Orchestra Hall in 1963. In a respectful gesture, Hindemith is commemorated not just in the current programming, but also in the endowment of the principal viola chair (as of this year now known as the Paul Hindemith Principal Viola Chair). It was a pleasure to hear the renowned Chicago brass section in a work that features them so prominently. Seated in a semicircle just behind the strings (horns no longer separated from the others!) the audience enjoyed the full, brazen effect of the CSO brass. As an ensemble, the brass section produced a resonant glow, and the individual lines spread throughout the work were also pleasing. The solos by principal trombonist Jay Friedman were richly satisfying, and Chris Martin’s solo trumpet lines were dazzling in their focused intensity of tone. The strings were on form as well; particularly commendable was the purity of intonation in the moments of unison pitches between every string instrument. This work of Hindemith’s is a novelty, the second part is particularly interesting in its eclectic mix of styles, combining such tried-and-true techniques as canon and antiphony with oddities like a snatch of polka music.

Orchestra Hall’s stage began to reach its personnel capacity for the final piece, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. This is another work that features in the CSO’s history, as Prokofiev conducted its US première in Chicago in 1918. This early work features a very large orchestra (perhaps inspired by Stravinsky's watershed Rite of Spring). The blare and pomp with which it begins are usually associated with a triumphant finish; here they were merely the herald of bombast to come. Muti expanded his conducting presence to match the music, looking rather like a jack-in-the-box to manage the frenetic opening. This work’s mythic inspiration was conveyed well by the CSO; introspective moments in the first and third movements featuring the flute and harp recalled music of more ancient times and were interpreted with appropriate simplicity. Even during quieter moments like these, the tension did not let up, with muted strings slithering around the fingerboard with furtive menace. The expanded percussion section added character and direction throughout; Cynthia Yeh’s exciting xylophone solos in the second movement were particularly effective. While the programming of two slightly obscure works from the 20th century paired with two of the most famous Classical repertory pieces might seem jarring on paper, in practice it worked well. The Prokofiev proved a rousing finale, in that special, monumental way only a massive orchestra can provide.

***11