In what has become an unfortunate motif in the Muti era, the CSO's music director was forced to withdraw from this and next week’s performances due to health related concerns – in this case, it was a fall he suffered after returning to Italy following the orchestra's Asia tour that necessitated hip surgery. On the positive side, after illuminating performances of Shostakovich last week, Gennady Rozhdestvensky was still on hand to take the reins this week and Manfred Honeck is on tap for the following. In a bizarre coincidence, Rozhdestvensky himself suffered a fall that resulted in him cancelling an engagement in Dresden just a few weeks prior, but given the energy he brought it would certainly appear he has made a full recovery.

Three of the four works on the program were for strings alone, indeed the heartbeat of any orchestra, and they flanked Mozart’s late Clarinet Concerto with CSO principal Stephen Williamson. Notwithstanding a stint with the New York Philharmonic during the 2013-14 season, Williamson has consistently proved to be a high point of the CSO’s wind section since assuming the post in 2011, and this inaugural outing as soloist was richly deserved. Written in the final few months of his life, the Clarinet Concerto was the last significant work Mozart managed to complete; although it may hardly sound like a swansong with its joy and vitality, it is never without an ineffable melancholy. 

It should be remembered that Mozart originally wrote the concerto for Anton Stadler’s now obsolete basset clarinet, and the version performed was the one recomposed to fit the standard A clarinet’s truncated range. From the onset, Williamson brought forth his immediately recognizable lush, full-bodied tone. The opening theme wouldn’t have been out of place in The Marriage of Figaro; Williamson and colleagues gave it verve and vivaciousness. The rapid runs given to the soloist throughout the movement were nimble and played with remarkable clarity. 

Williamson’s singing tone in the Adagio was heavenly, and matched by the ensemble’s sensitive accompaniment with the strings providing an especially fine complement. Williamson was unfortunately having some mechanical difficulties with his instrument which even necessitated him to stop and start the movement over again, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more invested he might have been had he not been plagued by such pedestrian concerns. Another quasi-Figaro theme launched the finale, and matters were concluded with congeniality from all.

The evening was originally supposed to open with Ligeti’s Ramifications, but with the change in conductor came a change in program with Sibelius’ Rakastava. Regrettable since the CSO’s ventures into contemporary repertoire are all too rare this season, but one was pacified in that the substitute was at least also something infrequently heard. Rakastava draws its inspiration from the folk poems of the Kanteletar – along with the Kalevala this was the source of many of Sibelius’ most significant works as well as an essential part of Finland’s forging of a national identity.

Rakastava underwent many guises before taking its final form for strings with a subtle touch of percussion in the timpani and triangle. The opening movement (“The Lover”) started off austere but became increasingly passionate after a sudden textural change; the central movement (“The Path of the Beloved”) was featherlight and mercurial. The concluding “Good Evening – Farewell” was heightened by John Sharp’s cello solo as the somber poem was sung by this choir of strings.

As the title suggests, Arvo Pärt’s Orient & Occident deals with a clash of cultures between east and west. The credo is subtly embedded in the fabric of the work while other lines seem to invoke the call of the muezzin from some distant minaret. Matters quickly become convoluted in this illustration of the challenges of cross-cultural communication. While perhaps not his most effective piece, the work is nonetheless characterized by Pärt’s rarefied minimalism wherein towering granite monoliths coalesce into a cathedral of sound.

Concluding the program was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a veritable miniature symphony. The resounding of the strings on stage in the passionate first movement was nearly overwhelming, and a charming moment of repose was given in the ensuing waltz. During a particularly strikingly executed passage in the elegy, the violins carried the melody over the low strings’ pizzicato, and the cellos eventually took over to give things more gravitas. Tchaikovsky reminds us of his origins in the finale, based on a pair of Russian folksongs, leading up to a return of sumptuous sonorities of the opening. How Rozhdestvensky’s eccentric gestures elicited such wondrous sounds I’ll never know; the effect, however, was mesmerizing.