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Muti celebrates Spring residency with fine classic Austro-German survey

Music Director Riccardo Muti leads Chicago Symphony Orchestrconcert Thursday night Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concert on Thursday night at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — RICCARDO MUTI , CONDUCTOR

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Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

When: Repeats April 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Info: (312) 294-3000; www.cso.org

Updated: May 21, 2013 6:23AM



Riccardo Muti’s spring residency has featured extensive public rehearsals with the Civic Orchestra, the professional training arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a meeting with incarcerated youth at the West Side Cook County juvenile detention facility who performed their own compositions for the music director; and a celebratory evening with Chicago’s Italian-American community and Italy’s new general consul here.

With the CSO itself, Muti is in the midst of a three-week, three-program survey, basically chronological, of classic Austro-German repertoire from Bach through Schumann. Conductors get overcategorized — and often contribute to this pigeonholing themselves — as “specialists” in certain genres or as “more sympathetic” to certain national schools. Muti has received both mixed responses in the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and has had controversial things to say about Beethoven and some of his German and Viennese successors in opposition to his beloved Italians.

Thursday night at Orchestra Hall gave a sense of how Muti can provoke varied emotions in the core symphonic repertoire. Opening with a fairly luxurious — if small in forces, just 19 players — reading of an early 18th-century Vivaldi eight-minute “concerto ripieno,” a kind of pre-symphony symphony, Muti showed that emphasis on lyricism and polish that are such a part of his appeal.

As he moved into more complex — if often light on their surfaces — works by Mozart and Beethoven, one wanted more consistently deep engagement with these pieces, particularly because, on paper at least, Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony have similar innovative structures and harmonic concepts.

Both the Mozart, the D Major No. 38, K. 504 from 1786, and the Beethoven, B-Flat Major, Op. 60, start with unusual, dark and slow introductions before moving into sunnier and playful realms. These concentrated sections hold harmonic material — changes in keys and moods — that is then reworked and referred to by the composer throughout the works. Except for the last two movements of the Beethoven, Muti seemed to focus much more on an overall “cantabile” (singing) line in the pieces and a feeling of attractive lyricism at the expense of inner, if often subtle, turbulence and contrasts. Taking every repeat in the Mozart allowed Muti to show his precise attention to phrasing throughout the piece, and also to offer one of the longest “Prague”s ever heard here.

The presence of the tremendous San Francisco Symphony timpanist David Herbert, who will start full-time as principal here in the summer, did allow Muti to illustrate some of the devilish humor and commentary in both works, and in the finale of the Beethoven he gave the cellos and basses their head in passages where the composer turns the hierarchy of the string sections upside down. And brilliant bassoon David McGill was having the time of his life in both pieces with customary elegant contributions from clarinet Stephen Williamson, flute Mathieu Dufour and oboe Eugene Izotov as well.

Muti takes the orchestra and this program on a run-out Saturday night to the Krannert Center in Urbana at the University of Illinois, and welcomes his pianist compatriot Maurizio Pollini next week in concerts of more Mozart with later Beethoven plus Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Andrew Patner is a locally-based free-lance writer.



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