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After the strike, it’s on with a gala concert for Muti and the CSO

Chicago Symphony Orchestrmusic director Riccardo Muti congratulates Anne-Sophie Mutter after her performance Mendelssohn's ViolConcerSaturday Symphony Center. Todd Rosenberg photo.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti congratulates Anne-Sophie Mutter after her performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto on Saturday at Symphony Center. Todd Rosenberg photo.

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Updated: November 2, 2012 6:15AM

Jitters, relief and joy seemed present in equal measure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s gala concert and Symphony Ball fund-raiser Saturday night at Symphony Center and the Fairmont Chicago Hotel.

“How grouchy do you find our musicians are right now?” one longtime CSO patron of a liberal bent asked me at the post-concert, pre-dinner cocktail hour.

For his part, music director Riccardo Muti said, “Stay close to your orchestra,” to loud applause from the black-tie audience during impromptu remarks from the podium after leading the CSO and superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in nearly 90 intermissionless minutes of music. “They represent Chicago to the world.”

Last week’s 48-hour strike by orchestra musicians was never mentioned directly in the speeches at both venues Saturday. But outgoing CSO Association chairman William A. Osborn, credited by both sides of the dispute with helping to reach a settlement when he unexpectedly joined negotiating sessions Monday afternoon, did make an odd set of comments onstage Saturday. Referring to the players as “our world-famous orchestra,” the retired Northern Trust banker, added with a chuckle, “I’m going to call you that from now on.”

Was Osborn’s “from now on” line in contrast with the slogan adopted by CSO management during his highly successful six-year tenure, “World’s Best. Chicago’s Own”? That was the line that some observers said tripped up the trustees when they wanted the musicians to shift down to second- or third- or fourth-best in compensation while still being expected to be tops in commitment and execution.

But grouchiness was undetected Saturday. Music, conversation and dancing were the order of the evening.

Launching his third season with trademark unusual repertoire last week, a visit to a Cook County juvenile detention facility Sunday afternoon, three season-opening concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall this week and the CSO’s first trip to Mexico next week, Muti had his customary tricks up his white-tie sleeves with works that on paper looked predictable.

Though he has expressed sus­picions about Richard Wagner’s operas, and much Germanic music in general, Muti is superb in bringing out the intense musicality of these works. The overture to the “Flying Dutchman,” the first entry in the Wagner canon, and programmed to mark the centenary of former CSO music director Georg Solti, made one long for the insight and lightness Muti would bring to a CSO concert performance of one of Wagner’s Bayreuth operas. The conductor’s impishness was evident in following the “Dutchman” opener with Mendelssohn’s 1844 Violin Concerto. Just a few years after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, Wagner would unleash his vulgar attack on the composer for setting back the German arts by inserting “Jewishness in music.”

Mutter’s Mendelssohn was at times Germanic but certainly never vulgar and always alluring; she offered one of the speediest performances ever of the work yet one that was ever respectful and that explored technical finesse while turning the score’s intricacies into one rather remarkable long line. Having saved the day at the 2010 gala when Muti fell ill just before concert time, the ever-glamorous Mutter was entitled to her individual take this time.

The banishment of vulgarity is a constant Muti mission. His rare indoor closer of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was both an aural and visual refined treat from the CSO’s small choir of six cellos and violas that lay out the insinuating initial theme to the competition of French and Russian national melodies to the ringing of church bells at Russia’s triumph over Napoleon. Only the use of 16 synthesized cannon firings undercut this rescaling of what is too often merely a party piece.

“Stay close” to this orchestra, Chicago, as it builds on its many strengths with this unique partnership with this special artist.

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

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