CHICAGO — It may have been just another pocket of silence in the worldwide concert-hall quiet brought on by the pandemic, but when the music finally returned to Orchestra Hall, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its audience were once again convened in the same space, the mood was electric. No, it was crazy.
As music director Riccardo Muti walked onto the stage, his first appearance in 20 months, he got a roaring welcome that might have gone on for who knows how long had he not pointed to percussionist Cynthia Yeh for a National Anthem drumroll. No need for everyone to rise; they were already on their feet. It was at once bizarre and exhilarating to be with that masked throng seated elbow-to-elbow.
Yet the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s glistening, soaring, pin-perfect performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (Eroica) lent the occasion a marvelous normalcy. This is what had been absent from life for the last year and a half. This familiar musical brilliance and wordless eloquence. This profound spirituality.
The Chicago Symphony was back at last.
Only a few hours before the concert, the orchestra had announced that Muti, absent in the stillness of the entire 2020-21 season, had agreed to a one-year extension of his directorship, through the 2022-23 season. He will lead the Chicago Symphony on a tour of Taiwan, China and Japan in January 2023.
Compounding that upbeat development was the simultaneous announcement that Muti’s add-on season would include Beethoven’s epic Missa Solemnis, a work the conductor had planned for the beginning of the lost season 2020-21, the crowning flourish of the CSO’s yearlong celebration of the composer’s 250th anniversary. That event was to have been Muti’s very first go at the Missa Solemnis, composed late in Beethoven’s life, just before the Ninth Symphony. Instead, Muti conducted the work for the first time this summer at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic. (A video of what’s in store for Chicago is available here.)
Incredible as it may seem that a conductor of such eminence and accomplishment had never before tackled Beethoven’s monumental mass, Muti said he had simply never felt equal to the work’s sheer magnificence.
“So high is the message that I felt always too small in front of such music,” he said in an interview by phone from his home in Ravenna, Italy, just before leaving for Chicago. “I had always been very reluctant in front of the great works like Beethoven. The first time I did the Ninth Symphony I was already 46 years old. The Missa Solemnis was the first score that I bought, and since then I have studied it and studied it, but I always felt that it was not the time.”
Like many other orchestras, the Chicago Symphony was deep into its Beethoven year when the pandemic curtain came down on theaters, opera houses, and concert halls around the world. Picking up that thread, Muti is spotlighting two of Beethoven’s most popular symphonies in his first two weeks with the CSO this fall: the Eroica in the orchestra’s opening weekend, Sept. 23-25, followed Sept. 30-Oct. 2 by the Seventh.
Not always keen about explaining the why of his programming choices, the conductor had a ready reason for picking Beethoven’s grand-scaled Third Symphony:
“The people have been heroic through this difficult time,” he said, “and the Eroica Symphony comes from a man who also suffered so much in his life. The Third Symphony and the Seventh are masterpieces that people need to hear again — live, with all the energy and electricity of the concert hall. That is the meaning of theater, which the ancient Greeks and Romans and Shakespeare knew. We have to experience again this great coming together, and to feel the music of the Eroica is the best beginning.” (A video is available, on YouTube.com, of Muti’s performance of the Eroica with the CSO, in 2019.)
“This time for us has been a terrible experience,” Muti said. “People have lost their relatives. But life has to go on. What we need now is love with a capital L.”
Muti’s newly added season in Chicago, his 13th at the CSO helm, will take him almost to his 82nd birthday. In rehearsal for the orchestra’s restart and on the concert podium for the opening concert that night, the conductor appeared to be quite fit for a man who turned 80 years old in July. While he expressed great joy in comments to the audience before the concert, the conductor struck a sober tone, reminding his listeners of the crucial importance of the arts in nourishing the soul and indeed defining our humanity.
The intermission-free, 90-minute concert commenced with with Joseph Bologne’s charming and adroitly fashioned Overture to his opera L’amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover) and Florence Price’s Andante moderato, a work of disarming lyric beauty. The stylish overture by the Black, Guadeloupean-born Frenchman Bologne perhaps reflects the model of Mozart (Bologne’s junior by 11 years), who had spent several months in Paris just before L’amant anonyme was written. Yet the finesse and wit of the piece are distinctive, and its quiescent middle section bespeaks the mastery of a composer with his own clear voice. Muti led a beguiling performance, by turns brisk, vibrant and songful, with luminous playing by the CSO strings.
Price’s Andante moderato for strings, adapted from her String Quartet No. 1 (1929), is yet another example of music by this gifted composer who had two strikes against her as a Black woman in the first decades of the 20th century. Its ruminative opening evokes the spirit and the texture of Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” from the 1927 musical Show Boat. The shadow of Dvořák, often present in Price’s music, also permeates this folk-tinged piece, in its harmonic schemes and in its buoyant rhythms. Still, it is the work of a confident hand and poetic mind, and the Chicago Symphony strings imbued it with a full measure of opulence and brio.
Then came the epic Eroica, and a performance that set the bar high for whatever may follow this season at Orchestra Hall. In the strings’ finely drawn contours and the precise interplay of woodwinds, in the plangent gleam of French horns and the motoric urgency of double basses, this thrilling account of Beethoven’s Third Symphony utterly belied that time away, the great gap of idleness, and the separation of an ensemble from its commander in chief. The Chicago Symphony unfurled grand banners of sound; it proclaimed its return.
Favoring rather quick tempos, Muti imposed no artificial drama. From the outset, he allowed the music to speak, to sing its heroic hymns of intellectual rigor and unfathomable tragedy and high humor and dazzling affirmation. In the vast opening movement, Muti presented the stunning panoply of a simple idea elaborated into an exegesis on symphonic creation. The conductor’s alertness to counterpoint, to Beethoven’s closely wrought colloquy of voicing, left one thinking this surely must be the greatest orchestral movement ever written — until Muti took up the ensuing funeral march.
Marcia funebre, indeed. More like a funeral oration. Shakespeare without words, though scarcely less articulate. Again Muti pushed the tempo just enough to avoid melodrama. It was a dread processional, full of dark grief, and then, in the grand fugue upon which the movement pivots, bright transfiguration. Here was Muti the master of opera, measuring the tread, the arc, the culmination in near silence. The playing was sure and focused, as ravishing as it was somber.
The scherzo, vivacious and fleeting, gave way to a finale of unbridled brio and deceptive elegance. It was ripping, careening, always surprising, and ultimately joyous. The audience responded in a long and lusty tumult that surged until Muti finally smiled and waved good-night — until the next week, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.