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Muti shows mastery of Paganini

6/22/12 8:09:40 PM -- Chicago Symphony OrchestrRiccardo Muti Conductor Robert Chen violPaganini ViolConcerno.1 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

6/22/12 8:09:40 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti Conductor, Robert Chen violin, Paganini Violin Concerto no.1 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

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Highly recommended

8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets, $48-$86

(312) 294-3000,

Updated: July 25, 2012 6:47AM

Riccardo Muti’s first season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010-11 was a roller coaster of health problems and cancellations alternating with triumphant concerts at home and at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In contrast, the just concluding 2011-12 season, Muti’s second as artistic leader of the CSO, has been one of smooth sailing and a strength of connection between conductor, orchestra and audience that often can take years of constant collaboration. These partnerships have had the additional seal of hugely successful tours to European music centers last summer, California in the winter and six cities in Russia and Italy this spring.

Along the way, the charismatic Italian artist has picked up an almost comical number of major awards (including his first-ever Grammys, for the Verdi Requiem with the CSO), prizes (including $1 million from Sweden’s Birgit Nilsson Foundation), honorary degrees and even a promotion in the rank of his papal knighthood. Yet Muti has turned each of these into important moments for emphasizing the importance of culture in society and communication through music between societies. He is even credited with playing a role in both the collapse of Silvio Berlusconi as political strong man in Italy and securing the continuation of some arts funding there.

An outside observer might say that music critics, CSO management and international academies and audiences are engaged in some sort of joint campaign to convince the world that the man walks on water. Instead, as Friday night’s concert showed again, all parties are beneficiaries here of a wise joining of a highly experienced conductor entering the autumn of his career — Muti turns 71 next month — with a historically leading orchestra made newly flexible in recent years by a set of of uniquely brilliant helmsmen in a city that knows how to make an important figure feel welcome if that figure wants to be made welcome.

Muti’s repertoire and programming can be almost maddeningly eclectic. When I asked him last week on WFMT how Bruckner’s too-neglected, astonishingly deep hourlong Sixth Symphony fit with the virtuosic demonstrations of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, he responded emphatically, “Absolutely nothing!”

But that answer and those program choices actually underscore Muti’s true goal and the deadly seriousness with which he pursues it, dosed as it is with heavy handfuls of both sharp and friendly wit.

This remarkable international season and year has been a reminder of Muti’s goal that music be embraced as a totality and that it and the larger culture it represents need to be central to human life, even our daily lives. This is his spoken and performed message, whether working with incarcerated young women in the state facility in west suburban Warrenville, the members of the CSO’s Civic Orchestra professional training program, the players in the CSO itself and the audiences for all of these. Do what you do with full commitment. Do it better. Bring yourself up to the level of the music. And if some of that music is lighter or more playful than the accepted masterpieces, let yourself go there as well. And see what you can make of it if you play it or take it with that extra level of focus.

The Paganini arose to fill out a program with the Bruckner, always a tricky proposition, and also to give a showcase with the orchestra’s refined concertmaster, Robert Chen. With Chen you get elegance, and once you got past the idea that Paganini means all of the showmanship of Kreisler or the magic of Heifetz, you appreciate his approach. Chen understands what Muti brings out in the orchestral accompaniment of this early 19th century music: Paganini was a peer of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the masters of Neapolitan opera. There are things to think about in this music as well as to be amused or amazed by. And this was what Chen spun out for us, complete with Carl Flesch’s cadenza, so sympathetic to this approach.

And then the Bruckner. If Muti had us leaning in to the Paganini he knew he could capture the full house completely with these four movements of spiritual meditation, exploration and celebration. This was one of those total experiences where the attachment between score, conductor, orchestra and audience became a unity. The four principal winds, horns led by associate principal Daniel Gingrich, the reborn bass section with its new, young principal Alexander Hanna all came together with the properly directed — read never too loud — brass and the now silky strings to make you want to come back and hear it all again Sunday afternoon, the last downtown concert until late September.

Muti still has work ahead of him if he wants to keep this level of mission up. There have been timpani auditions this week, and a legendary principal and some key wind players past their prime have to be brought to understand that the movement of this great ship requires new hands on deck. But this season has shown that Chicago has the right captain. The partnership could become historic.

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