For CSO opener, Muti explores some unfamiliar corners of the repertory

Symphony Center

Symphony Center (September 21, 2012)

There was good news to come out of Symphony Center on Thursday night. Riccardo Muti was back to open the new season, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians are playing while talking. All's right with the world, or at least the CSO's corner of it.

There is yet no new contract to replace the labor agreement that expired Sept. 16, and a further bargaining session is scheduled for Saturday. A management spokeswoman says only that "talks have been constructive and are ongoing."

As negotiations continue, the musicians union has refrained from taking any action, no doubt out of respect for Muti and the players and for the fact that several important things are riding on the September concerts going ahead as scheduled, not least the orchestra's and Muti's early-October tour to Carnegie Hall and Mexico.

The attractive program with which the music director is launching the season's subscription series finds him in an adventuresome mode, presenting Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 5, Giuseppe Martucci's "Notturno" and Ottorino Respighi's "Feste Romane." None of these qualifies as a warhorse, and all three brought out the best in Muti's virtuoso band, with only minor glitches in the horns to mar the gleaming finish of the playing. It augurs well.

Shame on symphony orchestras for neglecting Dvorak's F major symphony. I, for one, would gladly forgo yet another performance of the "New World" Symphony in favor of this warmly ingratiating score, the first important work of his maturity. Here is the 34-year-old Czech composer announcing his talent to the world. Muti, who hadn't done any Dvorak here prior to the Fifth Symphony, is to be congratulated for bringing it back into the repertory, after a nine-year absence, in a most enjoyable performance.

The pastoral opening, with its theme for two clarinets, sets the tone for a score marked by Dvorak's typical melodic abundance and folkish exuberance. Under Muti's supple control, the long lines unfolded with a flow that felt natural rather than self-conscious, and with a careful balance of instrumental choirs beneath.

The rustic idyll that is the slow movement gave way to an infectiously spirited Scherzo, Muti crouching low on the podium to get the dynamic contrasts he was after. The symphony ends in a blaze of F major triumph, but not before Dvorak teasingly holds the listener in harmonic suspense – when will the home key finally arrive? The distinguished soloists included Stephen Williamson, clarinet; J. Lawrie Bloom, bass clarinet; and Eugene Izotov, oboe.

Then it was on to a pair of Muti's Italian specialties. The coupling made sense, since Respighi was a pupil of Martucci's, and both masters upheld the symphonic tradition in Italian music at a time when opera predominated.

The pieces are completely opposite, and as such complement one another, Muti told Thursday's audience. The Martucci Nocturne is, he said, "delicate and melancholy," while Respighi's "Roman Festivals" is big, beautiful and brazen, just like the Eternal City itself. "The orchestra becomes crazy at the end," the maestro observed, much to the amusement of the audience.

Muti has done much to champion Martucci's undeservedly neglected music, having introduced the CSO to the composer's Piano Concerto No. 2 a year ago. The six-minute Nocturne (a piano piece orchestrated in 1901) has a gentle, wistful lyricism that is most appealing, for all its debts to Puccini. It could hardly have received more loving or shapely attention.

Respighi's Technicolor tone poem – the third and least familiar of a Roman trilogy that includes "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome" – is a natural for our hot-blooded Italian maestro, even if the native Neapolitan has only recently adopted Rome as one of his cities of residence.

Muti knows the way to do this sonic blockbuster is not to flout its vulgarity but to embrace it. With 10 percussionists and a pipe organ at his command, and extra trumpets stationed in the terrace, he wrung every drop of color from the sumptuous orchestration. Such is his knack for clarifying the thickest textures that you heard everything – the roaring brass as lions are set upon the martyrs in "Circenses," the lovely mandolin serenade in the nocturnal "October Festival," the frenzy of jubilation in the final "Epiphany." Yet the sensitivity to atmosphere was there along with the swagger.

As Muti remarked, "This is Roma." The music is the city. So it was with the orchestra's reading of Respighi's gloriously excessive piece. I expect Carnegie will go wild over it just as Orchestra Hall did on Thursday

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and Sept. 28 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$212; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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