Just when you thought it was safe to dip your toe into summer music, along comes Riccardo Muti to say, "Not so fast." The winter classical music season has, insofar as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is concerned, three more weeks to run.
The music director is back in town, looking conspicuously hale and hearty. Once again there's much on his plate. He is devoting part of the opening weekend of his final residency of 2012-13 to community outreach. On Sunday afternoon, he will travel down the Chicago River in a boat bearing him and a CSO brass ensemble to the riverbank of Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown, where he will conclude the CSO's "Rivers" Festival by leading Verdi's "Va, pensiero" (from the opera "Nabucco"), Italy's unofficial national anthem. (The chorus references the River Jordan. Who knew?)
Before that, Muti has subscription-series business to tend to. His program on Thursday night at Symphony Center, the first of three programs he will direct to conclude the current CSO season, found him on musical terrain he and the orchestra had never trodden together. You would not have guessed as much from the closely honed quality of their performances. So tight is their musical and personal rapport by now that a separation of six weeks is more a fermata than an interruption.
Muti and Haydn is not a combination that springs as readily to mind as Muti and Mozart, but it can yield much felicity, as Thursday's account of Haydn's Symphony No. 48 in C, the so-called "Maria Theresa," demonstrated.
Classical purists would have raised eyebrows at the maestro's romantic treatment of the Adagio movement, the phrasing very molded, hushed and molto cantabile. This bothered me less than the disastrous horn flub that shattered the music's stately calm. The rest was gracefully played and alive to dynamic nuance. Muti was very demonstrative of gesture, now crouching low when he wanted the violins to play more softly, now lurching toward them as if his baton were a saber.
New to the CSO's and Muti's repertory was Bohuslav Martinu's Oboe Concerto. There is a cookie-cutter quality to much of the prolific Czech composer's music, and I'm afraid this 1955 work for oboe and small orchestra is among his lesser creations. It's Frenchified Stravinsky, without the edge; the craft is there, but the invention is weak.
Still, solo oboists in search of 20th century concertos have very few viable options, so you really can't blame Eugene Izotov for settling on this bland if unpretentious piece. The CSO's principal oboe sang the long-breathed lyricism and tossed off the virtuoso flourishes and dancing figuration very appealingly, with a wide tonal palette and astonishingly seamless phrasing. Particularly effective was the meditative recitative of the slow movement, in effect an accompanied cadenza for oboe with piano, the latter part alertly discharged by Mary Sauer. Muti and Izotov's colleagues supported his playing in every essential respect.
Izotov was back in his customary chair in the woodwind choir for the concluding work, Scriabin's Symphony No. 3 ("The Divine Poem"), also an infrequent visitor to Orchestra Hall programs.
According to the Russian composer's note, the 1902-04 score represents the evolution of the human soul toward freedom and ecstatic union with cosmic infinity. But it's best to ignore his queasy theosophic mysticism and simply enjoy the symphony for what it is – a 50-minute wallow in ripe, sensuous, late Romantic orchestral sound. The music is excessive in every respect, which is entirely the point.
Muti has a special feeling for Scriabin – he recorded all five symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the late 1980s and early '90s – and his performance of "The Divine Poem" carried enough intensity, color and voluptuous tonal beauty to make true believers out of the audience as well.
The maestro scaled the perfervid climaxes deftly, papered over the longueurs and banalities cannily. He convinced you the music was at all times going somewhere, even when you suspected it wasn't. His mammoth orchestra, augmented to include nine horns and five trumpets, heaved, sighed, burned and sang. Nothing came out sounding coarse or vulgar. The woodwinds' proto-Messiaen birdsong in the central Lento was well worth waiting for.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $28-$215; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
CSO hires DiBello
The Chicago Symphony is making it a family affair with the recent hiring of Gina DiBello as a member of its first violin section. DiBello, who for the last four seasons has played principal second violin of the Minnesota Orchestra, is the daughter of longtime CSO bass player Joseph DiBello. Her mother, Bonita DiBello, plays violin in the Lyric Opera Orchestra. A Chicago native, Gina DiBello was a member of the Midwest Young Artists Youth Orchestra for eight years before pursuing her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. Her husband, Ian Ding, plays as a substitute in the CSO's percussion section.
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