When Riccardo Muti and the mighty Chicago Symphony last came to Southern California in 2012 – the CSO’s first visit here in 25 years – they brought a boldly adventurous program to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Concert Hall. I mean, when was the last time you heard Honegger’s wonderfully rowdy machine music, Pacific 231, in a concert hall? Or Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, once a concert perennial and now the equivalent of an out-of-fashion suit? And they topped it off with a terrific then-new piece by their composer-in-residence, Mason Bates, Alternative Energy, with Bates on his ever-present laptop to provide the swoops and whooshes and Muti looking as comfortable with these future-shock gestures as he would be in Tchaikovsky or Verdi.
So when they returned five years later – this time to Walt Disney Concert Hall to wind up a California tour last Sunday night (Oct. 22) – it was a little disappointing to contemplate a program containing nothing but Brahms’ Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Whatever adventure there was on this tour, they saved for a three-day residence in Berkeley a week or so before. If the intention was to sell tickets, they did manage to fill Disney Hall to about 7/8s full, but some dedicated orchestra buffs I know stayed home, put off by the reactionary programming.
OK, I thought, we’ll just have to deal with what we’ve been served – and happily it turned out to be a very tasty double-helping of Central European meat-and-potatoes. The CSO remains a phenomenal instrument – they never miss – yet the most phenomenal features about these performances were the little things. Like the repeat of the exposition of the first movement in Symphony No. 3, which Muti handled with markedly different phrasings and dynamic levels than the first time through. Like the unforgettable tune in the third movement, taken very slowly and phrased in a way that made it ache even more, with rubatos that sounded almost Italian in shape. Like the attention to subtle details, and the ability to play very softly with underlying tension and meaning.
Everywhere in both symphonies, Muti made the music breathe with a sense of surge and flow that you don’t hear very often – and certainly not from younger conductors who haven’t figured out how to do it yet. Tempos were mainly on the slow side, yet not lethargically so. And the individual sections and soloists displayed no weaknesses in the sharply revealing Disney acoustics – with a special call-out to their marvelous acting principal horn, Daniel Gingrich.
What we didn’t get in this visit was a sense of the sheer power and force that the CSO can still generate even a quarter-century removed from the Georg Solti era. The repertoire might have been the reason, but still, the finale of Symphony No. 2 should have a rush of energy that didn’t quite happen on this given night. I also didn’t hear the dark rich flood of sound that was so startling when I caught the CSO on their home turf, Orchestra Hall, in 2014. To be honest, I didn’t expect to hear that in bright, detailed Disney Hall, yet I wonder if something would have emerged if Muti had seated his orchestra with the cellos and basses center-left (as the LA Phil is configured) instead of the conventional hard-right.
Unlike 2012, there was an encore. After a speech by Muti in which he lamented this “cruel” world “full of aggression,” he led an exquisitely-played Entr’acte No. 3 from Schubert’s Rosamunde – his soothing answer to what ails us.