Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra promised a night of searing energy with a piquant program comprising Mediterranean and Latin American music. A Spanish bonbon opened the program: Chabrier’s España. This jaunty piece was played with verve and a dash of flippancy, from bassoonist Keith Buncke’s riffs tossed off with a flourish to the the spunky col legno accompaniment in the strings. Pizzazz all round set the stage well for the following, weightier pieces on the program.

Xavier de Maistre © Todd Rosenberg
Xavier de Maistre
© Todd Rosenberg
Harp virtuoso Xavier de Maistre joined Muti and the CSO for what was to be the evening’s triumph, Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. An unusual instrument choice for a composer’s first concerto, the Argentinian was imaginative in his treatment of harp writing, using extended techniques for exciting and novel percussive effects. De Maistre was a charismatic soloist, with a knack for highlighting his expressivity with apt physical gestures. The stereotype of the harp as a heavenly instrument was shattered by both Ginastera’s boisterous writing, and de Maistre’s full-blooded performance. Particularly fun to watch and hear was de Maistre’s cat-like swipes at his instrument for the impetuous, decidely unangelic glissandi that punctuate the work. Muti and the CSO worked together well to provide solid accompaniment in a work that is clearly not a CSO warhorse; Muti could be seen helping sections of the orchestra enter the thicket of polyrhythms with clear, timely cues. While the inexorable rhythmic drive that comprises much of the first and third movements were certainly exhilarating, de Maistre was also beautifully successful in his shaping of the lyrical moments. He demonstrated an impressive palette of tone colors, from the tender to the otherworldly, and an acute sensitivity to the manipulation of musical time.

Following the intermission came a performance of a rarity, Charpentier’s neglected Impressions of Italy. This revival seemed appropriate given the CSO’s anniversary season; Impressions of Italy appears on programs from the institution’s formative years, though not since 1937. While the performance was a success, it could perhaps only be so with an ensemble of the CSO’s calibre. The unique opening cello section soliloquy was handled well, leading into a serenade of much charm and less substance. While the five movements of this work don’t offer a wealth of musical reward, they did allow for individuals and small groups within the CSO shine through. Particularly strong was the horn section in the fourth movement, and principal cellist Kenneth Olson’s poignant solos in the last movement. The tarantella infused finale gave the CSO brass a chance to shine, and was a rousing way to cap Charpentier’s somewhat overlong journey through Italy.

Ravel’s Boléro wrapped up the evening, and was a delight. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh provided the famous snare tattoo, journeying from the softest start to a cracking conclusion in surefooted fashion. The menagerie of woodwind solos in the opening displayed both a spectrum of individual interpretations and cohesive blend. Throughout this work, the rapport between Muti and the CSO was evident with both conductor and many members of the orchestra grinning from time to time, perhaps some hijinks at hand. It was pleasure to watch and listen, and one hopes the contract negotiations go smoothly so that the joy the CSO can provide is not interrupted.

Before the spice and flavors of the evening’s line-up came another sort of warmth of a different, personal kind. The representative of the musicians of the orchestra, bassist Stephen Lester, spoke candidly with the audience just before the concert began. The musicians seated on stage were performing without a contract... and had been doing so since 15 September. Reflecting on the 125 years Chicago has had this venerable institution, Lester marveled at how far the orchestra has come since its simple beginnings in 1890. Now a cultural touchstone for Chicago, the CSO is nonetheless still susceptible, as all contemporary orchestras are, to the burdens inherent in the fragile financial model of today’s symphonies. This rare, public glimpse into world of contract negotiations from Lester was both sobering and touching, and encouraged the evening’s listeners to savor the concert experience all the more.