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Muti, CSO serve up unusual bill anchored by Beethoven’s Fifth

9-23-2010----Riccardo Muti leads Chicago Symphony Orchestrit's first subscripticoncert 2010-2011 season. He leads orchestraudience National Anthem. Sun-Times phoby Tom Cruze

9-23-2010----Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in it's first subscription concert of the 2010-2011 season. He leads the orchestra and audience in the National Anthem. Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $37-$199

◆(312) 294-3000,

Updated: July 17, 2012 12:43PM

3) last sentence -- with all *of his* experience and accomplishment . .,.,

The season-closing residency of Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra holds many of the music director’s trademarks. Unusual programming (a neglected Bruckner symphony and a Paganini violin concerto next week), public gestures (throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs-Tigers game and opening up the CSO’s rehearsal June 21 for “Make Music Chicago”) and a mix of dead seriousness with infectious humor.

Muti’s concert selections can evoke a late-night grocery run: items he loves or is intrigued by go into the cart whether they will make a structured meal. This week’s menu moves from a trivial, if biographically interesting, Prokofiev salute to one of Stalin’s massive construction projects, to the belated CSO premiere of one of Shostakovich’s last major works (and a chilling one at that) to everybody’s favorite: Beethoven’s Fifth. The combination might unnerve many but at least two of the dishes were worth eating and talking about.

Muti has many oddities in his longstanding repertoire. Prokofiev’s 16-minute “The Meeting of the Volga and the Don,” Op. 130, a “festive poem” from 1951 that the cellist Msistlav Rostropovich later claimed he sug­gested to the composer as a means of getting some money from the Soviet state when Prokofiev was literally starving before his death at 61. If Muti had not decided to make some post-performance remarks about the sarcasm of such moments as the work’s string of comical false-endings, it would have been almost impossible to justify this paean to the achievement of slave labor. Perhaps 200,000 Gulag inmates were worked to the bone and worse to build a canal (and a 33-ton copper stature of Stalin) between these two great rivers. Principal trumpet Christopher Martin and colleague John Hagstrom provided stirring double fanfares. Otherwise this was “Thomas the Tank Engine” stuff.

In sharp contrast, Shostakovich’s 1974 “Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti,” Op. 145a, is very serious stuff, indeed. The emotionally tortured composer’s last orchestral work was written as Shostakovich was dying of heart disease and lung cancer, and while such major contemporaries as the Nobel laureate writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich and his singer wife were being abruptly exiled from the Soviet state. In a cool, 45-minute survey, its chilling verses from the great Italian Renaissance artist, in Russian-language renderings, set against spare scoring for a large orchestra, create fascinating moments of musical space and emptiness that underline the despair of many of the poems on death, Dante’s exile and personal integrity.

Russian bass Ildar Ab­drazakov, a Muti protege so impressive in the CSO performances and Grammy-winning recording of Verdi’s Requiem in 2009, as well as in the title role of “Attila” with Muti at the Metropol­itan Opera in 2010, was the wholly fitting soloist. Abdrazakov’s is not the cave-deep, earth-shaking voice associated with Russian basses, but his vocal placement, refinement and native command of the language assured that the 11 songs were delivered with real poetry and without melodrama. Assistant principal Mark Ridenour and Hagstrom did the trumpet fanfare honors here. The deep and disturbing work makes a strong case for the original side of Shostakovich.

As for Beethoven, Muti offered a driven performance that stirred the sold-out crowd to four curtain calls. More interesting were the quiet touches of oft-overlooked detail, particularly in the andante movement, a veritable percolator of surprise. Principal oboe Eugene Izotov’s solo was, as ever, a gift. In contrast to former principal conductor Bernard Haitink’s almost mystical performance in 2010, this was a young man’s Beethoven with much red meat. But given conductors’ longevity and that he came of age after World War II, Muti, with all of his experience and accomplishment, still has much to contribute. Thank goodness for that.

Postscript: Sixteen hours after Thursday’s concert ended, the CSO was back onstage for the first of two season-finale “Beyond the Score” programs, this one featuring British actor Simon Callow in the first half playing Beethoven, and Muti and the musicians after intermission playing Beethoven’s Fifth. The theatrical portion this time sacrificed the live orchestra all together and went for what seemed a long costumed skit with actors and no narrator. As the script was still laden with information about many aspects of Beethoven’s (and Napoleon’s, as it turned out) life and specific musical examples, it seemed a disappointing change in the usually highly effective “BTS” format. John Goodwin did provide captivating illustrations of the composer’s music on fortepiano that gave a sense of how these themes, variations and transitions might have sounded in the early 19th century, before the full development of the modern piano.

The symphonic performance was another, wholly positive, story. This was a different sound and spirit from Thursday night, which, perhaps because of the heavy-duty subscription program and two pieces entirely new to the CSO, in retrospect was perhaps a final rehearsal for the Fifth. This time, and one imagines that it will go as well in the remaining three performances, we heard a revelation: Muti’s 41 years of leading major orchestras and wrestling with this score were on full display. Acomplete dynamic range was present with appropriate variants throughout. Movement timings made more sense, and there was real and artistic air around every note and section. When the symphony’s famed opening four-note theme returned as an accompanying figure in the last movement, its precise rhythm was unchanged. Somewhere there must be a German-Italian-English word that means “wow.”

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

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