The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Maestro Riccardo Muti, presented a program of Johann Strauss Jr., Verdi and Brahms for their season opener on Thursday night. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Updated: May 30, 2014 12:48PM
Eschewing a big showpiece or a star soloist, music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened the 2013-14 subscription season Thursday in less ostentatious fashion with a rewarding one-off concert of both favorites and obscurities.
The program might not have been about making a grand statement, but it wasn’t just a loose grouping of pieces, either. It was no coincidence that all four of the mid-19th century selections were written within a dozen years of each other, each offering different facets of the romantic spirit in full force at the time.
The concert also marked the beginning of the orchestra’s three-week celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, with the two modest works by the composer on this program setting the stage for more ambitious upcoming tributes.
The evening’s opener — the orchestra’s first-ever performance of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Overture to “Indigo and the Forty Thieves” (his all-but-forgotten first operetta) — could easily have been dismissed as a trifle, but Muti made sure it wasn’t. In a snappy performance highlighted by lively shifts in tempos and dynamics, he captured the work’s infectious sense of fun, yet still invested a needed seriousness of purpose, transforming this little overture into a big crowd-pleaser.
Next came the focal point of the first half — the symphony’s first subscription series performance of the Ballet Music from Verdi’s opera, “Macbeth,” with Muti drawing maximum dramatic potential from this excerpt of 12 or so minutes. The first half ended with a thrilling version of Verdi’s Overture to “La forza del destino” bursting with propulsive drive and energy. The woodwinds stood out all evening long, but they were especially in the spotlight in these two works, including a rare, well-handled duet between bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom and principal bassoonist David McGill in the Ballet Music.
The evening’s main event came in the second half, as Muti and the orchestra (with the French horns in notably good form overall) breathed freshness and life into one of the most familiar works in the symphonic repertoire — Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73. Dark clouds occasionally gather, but sunlight always manages to push through in this genial work, suffused with the composer’s distinctive brand of warm, burnished romanticism.
While there was a sense of power and sweep when called for in the long first movement, what stood out were the beautifully arched lines and malleable tempos, with Muti sometimes stressing his left hand, as he used it to shape the subtle phrasings he sought. Through it all, there was a natural, unforced, organic flow.
Following the slightly more melancholic second movement, the orchestra brought an appropriately light, agile feel to the swift third movement, with the conductor deftly contrasting the pervasive airiness with its weightier moments. The energy and punch of the fourth movement provided an appropriately joyous release and exhilarating conclusion.
Not a lot of razzle-dazzle perhaps, but Thursday’s winning concert provided a propitious start to the new season.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.