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Muti directs ‘Firebird’ for CSO opening night


Poor Anatoly Lyadov.

“Who?” If you’re thinking, that’s true. The Russian composer was Ballets Russes’ first choice to write music for the choreographic retelling of the Firebird, a Slavic folk tale. He never did. One account claims that Lyadov, who made up for what he lacked in work ethic with talent, did not even purchase the lined note paper by impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s first deadline. Instead the honor was given to the then-unknown Igor Stravinsky, and the rest is musical history.

The Chicago Symphony’s program this week — the first of the 2023-24 season — pairs the “Firebird” suite we know and love with “The Enchanted Lake” (1909), a short story Lyadov composed around the time “Firebird” slipped out of his grasp. ” commission. This is the second performance of the “Enchanted Lake” staged by the NGO in about years: the then musical director Riccardo Muti performed the tone poem with great pleasure. 2021 autumn program.

Muti, who now bears the title of “Honorary Music Director for Life” and will be back on the podium by the end of the month, did the same in his performance on Thursday. The dreamy, impressionist-toned poem favors atmosphere over formal development, but what a sublime stasis it is. Fine-grained attention This quiet work, introduced to some orchestration flourishes, becomes completely immersive. The opening, with its whispering violin trebles and echoing lower strings, gave the illusion that the entire string section was being strummed like a giant harp. Meanwhile in the evening real Harper, Julia Coronelli of the Milwaukee Symphony, As with every guest appearance he has made over the past two seasons, he elevated the performance with his delicate touch. Perhaps the day will soon come when Lyadov will be mentioned more often in this regard. pieces he composed — many of them charming, vivid miniatures like “The Enchanted Lake” — than miniatures he didn’t make.

But for now, “The Firebird” shines in its own glory, as it did on Thursday. Stravinsky’s music contains many subtle moments not far from Lyadov’s “The Enchanted Lake.” But on Thursday, Muti opted for denser, more pronounced tuttis throughout the suite. This diminished some of the mystique of the piece’s unique opening – the creeping low strings and complementary harmonic glissandi morphed into something more mezzo than pianissimo – but it was played better elsewhere, particularly in a very eloquent Berceuse (with dignified double-reed solos). by bassoonist Keith Buncke and oboist William Welter).

“Dancing from Hell” is always an exciting live broadcast, but Thursday’s spirited readings were in a class of their own. The opening beats ripped through the hall like gunfire, with timpanist David Herbert’s wooden mallet strikes and Jennifer Gunn’s sky-high piccolo screams adding sharpness to the chords.

However, from my perspective, the most gripping musical expression of the night was the only work that made an impact so far. wasn’t programmatic: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

“Firebird” may be the gold standard in orchestration, but Muti and the CSO were so focused on color and balance that even Brahms’s strongest harmonies seemed made of a series of layered pitches. The same straightforward approach that found mixed influence in Stravinsky dissected Brahms’s melodies and harmonies in an engaging way; the former stood out fascinatingly as individual characters, often in thrall to the latter.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra follows conductor Riccardo Muti's lead for its opening night at the Symphony Center on September 21, 2023.

This philosophy likewise encouraged an elegant Adagio non troppo movement to a more moderate tempo that was reliably drowned out by the orchestra’s rich, round middle voices. Muti maintained this momentum to support the lyrical lines of winds and low strings, as if delaying a singer’s breath control. A bold Allegretto grazioso brought out the essential, often overlooked humor of this movement; Its endearingly naïve main theme, sung with enthusiasm by oboist William Welter, was utterly arresting the moment it was pushed aside by a dancehall romp with violins.

The fourth part had the unconditional but ceremonial joy of a wedding; There were glittering festivities that were not at all limited in their splendor. No wonder Brahms inspired his peers so much: At the outset, a prominent clarinet display (played with his usual infectious vivacity by John Bruce Yeh, the show’s principal) foreshadowed that instrument’s solo in the final movement of Dvorak’s “New World.” Symphony and a few minutes later a whisper The C minor chorale with woodwinds and trombones briefly takes the listener into the opening of Mahler’s First; However, the symphony was written ten years later. Any striking interpretation approaches deeply familiar music with fresh eyes and an open heart; Thursday’s Brahms did just that, replicating the awe these composers must have felt listening to these exchanges more than a century ago.

This program was also something of a testing ground for the NGO’s new chief officer, Mark Almond. I’m not a fan of comparing artists with each other; this is often done tastelessly and misses a lot of nuance. But looking at Almond’s orchestral debut last season and Thursday’s concert, he represents a notable departure from the muscularity and solo showmanship of his predecessors, whose voice spread like a comet over the CSO. Instead, Almond’s sound tends to expand from within the orchestra, an organ in the organism. As in the quiet but commanding transition to the “Firebird” finale, some lines begged for a more decisive take on Thursday. But others took advantage of this light touch, such as the graceful gestures exchanged with the bassoon just before the end of Brahms’s first movement.

Almond isn’t the only newcomer. CSO basses, one of the most reserve-oriented sections of the orchestra, added Ian Hallas, Alexander Horton and Andrew Sommer to the lineup. New head librarian Justin Vibbard briefly passed Muti’s notes to his onstage stand before he deteriorated. And NGO has expanded its roster of outstanding young hires with assistant principal second violin Danny Yehun Jin, a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. During the final greetings, Muti greeted him affectionately with his trademark slap on the cheek.

The program is Sept. 22 and 26 at 7:30 p.m., 220 S. Michigan Ave. It will be repeated at the Symphony Center at; 312-294-3000 and cso.org

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.


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