In the final concert of Muti's winter residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he presented one of his most varied programs to date with repertoire spanning nearly two centuries.  He opened with Ligeti's Lontano, dating from 1967 – a rare foray for him into music of the latter half of the 20th century. Some have criticized Muti for his largely conservative choices of repertoire in Chicago, leaving the more adventurous works to the guest conductors, however, he clearly had a natural feel for the work's constant ebb and flow and one certainly hopes to hear more contemporary music from his baton.

Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg

Lontano is perhaps most well known for its use in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, him having previously used Ligeti's Atmosphères in 2001: A Space Odyssey. One indeed owes Kubrick a debt of gratitude for proliferating Ligeti's music. In Muti's rendition, the dense textures were presented with razor sharp clarity, and an intensity that was sustained through end when the music dissipates into a desolate silence. It was as if he was unfurling a tapestry built of a kaleidoscope of musical colors before the admirably attentive audience.

Beethoven's Triple Concerto took us back to 1803 – contemporaneous with the Eroica Symphony and the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, works that have largely overshadowed the one on Thursday night's program. In designating a piano, violin and cello as the concerto's "soloists," Beethoven both looks back towards the past and creates something of a novelty: pitting a group of soloists against the orchestra was fairly standard practice in the 18th century (Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante likely being the most famous example), but using the venerable piano trio was utterly unprecedented at the time.  

The trio was comprised of Jonathan Biss at the piano, CSO assistant concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, and assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen. The challenge in performing for all parties involved is not only balancing the soloists against the orchestra as in a standard concerto, but balance within the trio itself. Although there were a few instances when despite his very fine playing I felt Biss could have been more sensitive to his chordophone colleagues, this was generally impressively well achieved. Olsen was the standout of the trio for me, especially with his beautiful singing cello lines in the slow movement. Although booking international superstars for concertos guarantees better ticket sales, him and Jeong made a strong case for engaging local talent.

Muti directed the orchestra in a supple, nuanced accompaniment, emphasizing the work's elegant Viennese classicism. That being said, the last movement polonaise was perhaps a bit too genial, a bit too refined. Granted this is only a distant cousin to the fiery works of Chopin in the same genre (which the Pole would begin to write only a decade and a half after the present work as a precocious seven year old), but some additional emphasis on punctuating the characteristic dotted rhythms would have helped to liven things up. A polonaise is, after all, a dance.

Thursday night's performance had a particular sense of occasion as the second half began with Muti and CSO president Jeff Alexander honoring former principal bassoonist David McGill with the Theodore Thomas Medal. McGill was principal bassoonist for 17 years having previously served in that capacity with the Cleveland Orchestra, and retired at the end of last season with a memorable performance of Mozart's Bassoon Concerto. In his remarks, Muti touchingly reminded McGill and the audience that an orchestra member never truly retires as his particular sound leaves an indelible mark on the orchestra that will always persist as part of its legacy.

Muti then plunged into the next installment of his season-long Tchaikovsky symphony cycle, which has been immensely rewarding thus far, and this performance of the Second Symphony was no exception. There is an oft repeated joke that a music professor asks a student how many symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote, and the student replies "three: the Fourth, the Fifth, and the Sixth." Indeed the first three symphonies are largely neglected (as is the Manfred Symphony) and one of the highlights of this Tchaikovsky cycle has been the opportunity to hear stellar performances of these vintage works.

The Second Symphony, probably the finest of the first three, was posthumously nicknamed “Little Russian”, Little Russia being an archaic name for Ukraine, and accordingly, the symphony is replete with Ukrainian folk melodies. This folk quality is something we only rarely find in Tchaikovsky's later, more cosmopolitan works.  The expansive first movement is bookended by the folk song "Down by Mother Volga," presented beautifully and nearly flawlessly by acting principal horn Daniel Gingrich and answered in the bassoon by William Buchman, the latter proving himself a worthy successor to McGill. There is no true slow movement, unlike the heart wrenching outpourings we heard last week in the Pathétique, but the second movement Andantino charmingly provided moments of repose. The scherzo is perhaps the real gem of the piece, leading up to an inevitably grandiose finale which was a vehicle for the most impressive playing of the evening.  I, for one, am eagerly anticipating Muti's return in June.

****1