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Muti and the CSO create a beautiful sound in Schubert and ‘Night Ferry’

Mead composer residence AnnClyne (handout phoby Denise Anderscourtesy Boosey Hawkes)

Mead composer in residence Anna Clyne (handout photo by Denise Anderson, courtesy of Boosey Hawkes)

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Symphony Orchestra


◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center,
220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $19-$199

◆ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: March 12, 2012 8:04AM

If Chicago Symphony Orchestra audiences have not figured it out yet, music director Riccardo Muti loves beautiful sound.

He can find it in unexpected places, such as works by the neglected Italian composers he advocates, in works that are not always beautiful themselves (Orff’s “Carmina Burana”) or in those that hardly changed music history (the Franck Symphony in D Minor).

Of course he can bring out splendid sonority from central repertoire composers such as Brahms and Schubert, whose contributions go well beyond sonic polish and pull.

In contemporary music, at least since his arrival here, Muti’s goal has been to find new voices who might use rich sound to connect to new, younger audiences and reignite interest in others disaffected by the complexities of late modernism or bored by the repetitions of minimalism.

This week’s subscription program, heard Thursday night at Symphony Center, finds Muti wading at least hip-deep into luscious scores from Schubert and “Night Ferry,” a world premiere from Mead composer-in-residence Anna Clyne. (The other Mead chair holder, Mason Bates, scored a big audience hit last week with his electro-acoustic “Alternative Energy,” and Muti and the CSO will take both new works to California on tour next week.)

The British-born Clyne, 31, has written much experimental and genre-defying chamber/dance music, much of it incorporating tape, even of speaking voices. In addition to performances on the CSO’s MusicNOW series, which she and Bates curate, many of these pieces make up her provocative and often moving first CD, “Blue Moth,” out soon on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

For her first major commission for Muti and the CSO, however, Clyne chose to write a 20-minute, single-movement work for large orchestra, gaining any additional effects from the instruments at the high and low ends of the standard spectrum and its rich, tapestry-like scoring.

“Night Ferry” has a long and interesting story; the process behind it involved research into the life of Schubert (the composer Muti suggested as a touchstone for this commission) and his severe mood swings, poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Seamus Heaney dealing with obsession, a passage on real and metaphorical seas and a painting/timeline that Clyne created in her Fine Arts Building studio.

But as with a sculptor or painter, take the tools and studio away, and it’s the work that remains, in this case, a swirling evocation of dark physical and mental seas and a voyage on a courier vessel that’s more important than any landing or destination. Starting with a loud and low storm in the opening measures, it evokes the launch of Verdi’s “Otello,” with a series of repeated and altered falling themes in wind solos ride atop the churning strings.

Some of it seems obsessive and unchanging, but it certainly matches what a tormented but forward-moving mind can experience. It has a quality of film music, but one wonders if, as with Mozart’s Turkish marches, Mahler’s town bands and Ives’ cacophonies, composers who have grown up amid constant soundtracks aren’t just incorporating the beckoning sounds around them.

Muti clearly has devoted himself to studying and communicating this score with the greatest seriousness; the CSO delivered a performance that a composer can only dream of, filled always with beautiful playing. The piece often sounds like a concerto for principal piccolo Jennifer Gunn; her tiny instrument was like a light atop the dark and eerie ferry. Bass drum, clarinet and bassoon seemed to come from the deepest waters.

Schubert’s 1823 Third Entr’acte from “Rosamunde” hadn’t been herd here in almost 15 years. Muti spun it like a wistful dance at a long-ago ball. Bernard Haitink played the composer’s “Great” C Major Ninth Symphony here just three years ago as an almost autobiographical work about the passage of time. Muti’s take was much more in the present, emphasizing Schubert’s constant creative urge and technical mastery. Newly tenured principal clarinet Stephen Williamson was essential to Muti’s achieving his glowing vision in these two bracketing works.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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