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Muti’s absence felt in the CSO’s standard rep program this week

Symphony Orchestra


♦ 8 p.m. Saturday

♦ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $34-$169


Updated: February 20, 2013 6:11AM

The news that Riccardo Muti would miss the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Asia tour due to unexpected hernia surgery didn’t come until after the CSO concert Thursday night at Symphony Center. So patrons were able to bask relatively undisturbed in a satisfying, if not especially stirring, evening of Mozart and Brahms, conducted by Edo de Waart.

The distinguished Dutch conductor is on the CSO podium this month filling in for Muti, who had returned to Italy after being felled by the flu. (Lorin Maazel will replace Muti for most of the Jan. 25-Feb. 7 tour to Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea.)

Muti’s absence affected Thursday’s program, the first of three subscription concerts, in more ways than one. It was supposed to include work by Stravinsky and Busoni that Muti and the CSO would perform on the tour. Without time to prepare those works properly, the CSO substituted Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 (“Jupiter”). The concert closed, as planned, with the Brahms Symphony No. 4.

This is extremely standard repertoire, though few would complain about hearing a solid veteran like de Waart take a virtuoso ensemble such as the CSO through two such great symphonic works. De Waart generally downplayed each symphony’s inherent drama, however, emphasizing gracious elegance in the Mozart, and unhurried pacing and full-throated textures in the Brahms.

His approach had its merits. Mozart’s final symphony, the “Jupiter,” is one of the composer’s most masterful blends of amiable high spirits and aristocratic nobility. Throughout the piece, the CSO sounded incisive and crisp, but never rushed. In the opening bars, the short phrases erupted like a kind of zesty fanfare, an enthusiastic invitation to a lively party. But the musical festivities were never breathless or giddy. In the third movement, the folk-tinged dances flowed like satin. In their solo turns, the CSO woodwinds sounded genial and warm, but their harmonies and overlapping lines were inherently elegant.

In the Brahms symphony, de Waart’s emphasis on clear phrasing allowed ample room for the composer’s intricate textures to blossom and breathe. But at times, his deliberate pacing undercut the darkly romantic shadows and dense weight that can make this symphony so haunting. The CSO played with a rich, powerful tone throughout, however, and in the final moments, short, assertive phrases slashed the air like cold, merciless steel.

Wynne Delacoma, the Sun-Times classical music critic from 1991-2006, is a free-lance contributor.

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