by Dwight Casimere
Music Director Designate Riccardo Muti has returned to Symphony Center to lead the orchestra in a prelude to beginning a five-year contract as music director in September of the 2010-2011 season. Already, changes are afoot and a new attitude is evident both in the orchestra and in the audience.
Firstly, entering the hall, there was an energy only felt during visits by famous soloists or visiting orchestras. Immediately visible were suggestion boxes with pencils and notepaper at the ready for patrons to write down their questions for an upcoming Town Hall Meeting, a first in orchestra history, in which Maestro Muti will answer audience questions.
Inside, the anticipation of Muti’s appearance was palpable. A Friday matinee performance was in honor of the Chicago Symphony Alumni Association and included retired CSO members in the audience, who stood to receive audience recognition.
There was a hush as Muti walked onstage and ascended the podium, like a general taking charge of his troops.
The sound of the orchestra in the opening Mozart Symphony 35 in D Major (named Haffner in honor of a commission by a noble family) was bright and uncluttered by pretense. Muti maintained a sprightly tempo with his precise movements. The Andante was especially so, with a lithe air. The melody flowed above a singing cello line with Muti adding his own dance movements and, of course, the famous flying mane of hair, which offered its own counterpoint. The final movement, Presto, offered some fine playing from the horn section. The flutes and clarinets had ample room for expression in Mozart’s expansive score.
The main event, however, was Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 2 in C minor, last heard at Symphony Center in 1991 under Sir Georg Solti. It was a fitting choice of programming, one guaranteed to leave an indelible imprint on the audience. Muti was in firm control of the composer’s shifting moods and tempos throughout. He discovered the composer’s inner voices and brought them to the fore at just the right moments, signaling a ringing trumpet entry in the Scherzo or bending into the first violins, tete a tete to elicit a shimmering response from the strings and woodwinds. Muti danced and swayed to urge the orchestra through the blistering finale, letting the sparks fly in the ringing coda, then reigning in the mustangs for the hushed string choir of the Kyrie.
It was a command performance that brought a thundering ovation from the audience. Body language is everything and as Muti turned to the audience to acknowledge the applause, he dispensed with the customary felicitous bows. Instead, he stood at attention, chest poked out and hands folded calmly in front of his nattily tailored double-breasted Italian designed suit. He was clearly in control and projecting a composed, statesmanlike demeanor. There’s a new Sheriff in town. His name is Muti!
Sir Andrew Davis conducts the CSO Thursday, October 29, 8pm, Friday, October 30, 1:30pm and Saturday, October 31 at 8pm in Mendelssohn’s 3 .
Thursday, November 5, Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink begins a two-week residency with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The following week, November 12, brings Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. For tickets and information, visit www.cso.org.