Muti’s moods: A variety of music for CSO’s opening night

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Leif Ove Andsnes on opening night at Orchestra Hall.  (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its 129th season Thursday night at Orchestra Hall with a well-designed program of music by Mendelssohn, Grieg, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. Music director Riccardo Muti was on the podium, and Leif Ove Andsnes was the piano soloist.

The audience appeared happy and at times excited before the initial concert of the 2019–20 season got underway, and few could have found themselves disappointed by the time they left. Muti and the CSO offered a generous and interesting program and truly inspired playing.

After the obligatory loud and percussion-filled performance of the National Anthem (replete with on-stage American flag) the concert got underway with the “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” Overture by Mendelssohn. Inspired by two poems by Goethe, the composer penned the piece when he was only 19 years old. Muti and his forces captured the liquid nature of the music. It began with quiet calm, invoking sunshine on placid water. Muti drew out the sense of voyage, making the music itself the journey. You could feel the gusty winds and the cool rain and could easily imagine threatening sunsets and sparkling sunrises on the water. The marvelous journey ended with an endearing smoothness.

The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was a superb choice to perform one of Norway’s most loved classical compositions: the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Edvard Grieg. The orchestra began with crisp, incisive playing, and the portentous timpani set the stage for the cascading chords of the piano entrance. Andsnes had expertly controlled power that drew out the majesty of the opening movement. His playing was both fluid and joyful, with almost magical rapid runs of notes brilliantly articulated. His extended solo was mesmerizing, and soloist and orchestra ended the movement with great flair.

The Adagio had both warmth and tenderness in the strings, including a brief and pretty solo by principal cello John Sharp. Andsnes was both fluid and lyrical, at times beautifully tender.

The final movement found the pianist drawing buoyant sound from his instrument and he was well supported by the orchestra. Andsnes was at times frisky and at other times pounding out the music with incredible intensity and drama. As the concerto came to its monumental conclusion, the audience was on its feet with roaring applause. It was a remarkable and fresh performance of a well-known work, proving that familiarity does not have to mean pedestrian.

Andsnes then offered a splendid little encore, also by Grieg: the Norwegian March (Gangar) from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54. He played with an amiable gentleness, offering delicate top notes and exciting dynamics. It was thoroughly charming.

After the intermission, Muti and the orchestra returned for two Russian works. First was the Rêverie for Orchestra by Alexander Scriabin. It was the composer’s first piece for orchestra, written was he was 16. He had already composed many pieces by this early stage in his life, all but one for solo piano.

The Rêverie is brief in duration — about five minutes — but jam-packed with interesting little ideas that join together to create a nightscape. Muti drew out not only the dreaminess of the music, but also the fleeting moody moments of haunting harmonies.

The concert concluded with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, composed in 1939. It is only three movements, with the first longer than the final two combined, but has quite a wallop.

Muti treated the opening movement (marked Largo — Moderato) with introspection and the minor thirds which permeate it were given their due. Big climaxes gave way to reflective quiet. Shostakovich gives many individual players prominence as the music wends its way to the slow conclusion, and Muti must surely have been pleased at the marvelous way his momentary soloists acquitted themselves throughout: bright piccolo, dreamy English horn, bluff bass clarinet.

There was lots of fire in the Allegro, with brash brass and eerie xylophone, and it ended with just the right amount of lightness.

The concluding Presto was a rapid-fire carnival of sound. It was jaunty, with the pummeling beat of snare drums and what one early critic described as “laughing trombones.” The volume and speed were exhilerating and ending was unquestionably fun, with Muti bouncing on the podium.

This was followed by another standing ovation from a greatly satisfied audience. This concert displayed a tremendous quality of performance, highlighting Muti’s marvelous success leading this great orchestra.

There were many empty seats in the first balcony (as well as reports of empty seats in sections I could not see), so if you aren’t a CSO subscriber, it is worth considering checking out availability of individual tickets for future concerts, even at short notice.

\This year marks Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the CSO has a season full of Beethoven performances. (The program for opening night featured a large picture of the composer with “Beethoven 250” in large letters on the cover.) Muti, who this year celebrates his 10th year as music director, will conduct all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies this season. Various soloists will perform Beethoven concertos as well as vocal works. The Symphony Center Presents series will include many of the composer’s chamber works, including all 32 piano sonatas. For more information, visit cso.org.