Muti leads CSO in wide-ranging program

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

CSO music director Ricarrdo Muti led the CSO in a wide-ranging, big program last week at Symphony Center with five interesting and contrasting works and featuring two orchestra members are soloists.

The program kicked off with Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major with Jennifer Gunn as soloist. She was joined on stage by a modest subset of her CSO colleagues, who created a small chamber orchestra of strings plus harpsichord.

With only about 20 musicians on stage, the effect was to create a more intimate setting and Gunn exploited this beautifully. Her tone was sweet and fetching, and she executed tricky, rapid runs with grace and flair. The strings provided a lovely cushion of support, with robust playing and idiomatic sound. The short work was over too quickly.

Gunn shined again with a 2016 work by the Nebraska native Ken Benshoof. His Concerto in Three Movements for Piccolo and Orchestra is a good-natured composition with lots of meat for the soloist and a full orchestra to back her up. The concerto opens with some wistful music for piccolo and the orchestra contributes melodies of hope, with the entire movement written in an introspective vein. The middle movement heard sweet songs from the soloist as well as an attractive little duet between flute and bassoon. The concluding section opened with pep as well as rumbles from the lowest voices of the orchestra. Muti always shaped the music so as to highlight the plucky piccolo melodies and to support them with stylish work from the orchestra.

This was followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, a preview of what’s to come in 2020, the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth, which will see numerous concerts devoted to this beloved composer.

Muti marshaled his forces expertly, coaxing the high strings to play with lyrical grace. The winds were supple and the rhythms crisp and well defined. The energy of the music was unleashed with superb control, drawing out the playfulness as well as the tension. It was a delight.

The biggest revelation of the concert was the new work by American composer James Stephenson. His Bass Trombone Concerto was commissioned for the CSO and for bass trombonist Charles Vernon. Stephenson has created complex music, often with many layers, and Vernon, for the most part, knew how to stand out and be heard. He had muscular sound and remarkable control. He moved from mystery to yearning, from bold declarations to quiet tremblings. Stephenson gave the bass trombone his moment to shine and Vernon fully embraced the opportunities.

Muti led the orchestra in a sympathetic and committed performance, offering carefully calibrated sound that highlighted the interesting journey Stephenson has created.

The concert closed with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” The music had all the friskiness you’d expect and great playing from the back of the orchestra, with fine work on trumpet, horn, clarinet, saxophone, and others.

The pleasing music was given bounce, yet there were moments when I wondered if the jazz inflections were really up Muti’s street. There were a few occasions when there should have been more lilt and a bit more jangled syncopation. Nonetheless, it was effervescent and joyful.