Riccardo Muti and Chicago Symphony make a blazing return to T.O.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Muti

Feb. 1 at Koerner Hall, Toronto

On one of the coldest nights of the year in Toronto, with temperatures plummeting into the negative double digits, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra set the frigid darkness ablaze with a scintillating concert Wednesday night at Koerner Hall, marking the ensemble’s triumphant return to the city after a 109-year absence.

Led by the indomitable Riccardo Muti, whose tenure as CSO music director concludes later this year, the orchestra performed a program of contrasting symphonies, consisting of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 5,” which showcased the group’s formidable artistry and technical prowess.

Classical music, like any art form, is one of balance. But unlike any other discipline, the margin between triumph and a train wreck is razor thin. To strive for the sublime is to venture to the edge without falling over.

Most orchestras are content staying far from the brink: playing it safe, sticking to the well-trodden path. The CSO, under Muti’s astute direction, however, possesses a perspicacious judgment and, with that, the ability to tread in a region where those aural moments of sublimity can occur.

Take, for instance, the ensemble’s thunderously brilliant interpretation of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Opening with sweeping grandiosity, the strings built upon an extended sequence of ascending scales before majestically landing on a series of propulsive chords.

The work, which Beethoven considered his “most excellent symphony,” then ingeniously transitions away from A major into other unexpected keys, before gracefully falling into the joyous rhythmic motif that ignites the rest of the movement. It’s deftly shared among the brass, woodwind and strings.

The mark of any great orchestra is the capacity to render classic pieces afresh, revealing new facets of oft-heard works yet delivering these discoveries such that the listener believes they were there all along. With Beethoven’s seventh, one of his most popular works, the CSO proves why they are one of the greats.

In the aforementioned motif, the orchestra drew out the dance-like rhythms and the vivid dynamic contrasts with self-assured confidence. Even the quietest moments were imbued with startling power and the silences with dramatic suspense.

This skill — at once technical and flamboyantly artistic — carried through to the slower second movement and the relentless drive of the third movement scherzo.

When the fourth movement arrived, the CSO unleashed a resounding finale, forceful in its strength of sound yet never compromising in musical detail. When the symphony first premiered in 1813, that prodigious finale — a churning theme from the first movement recapitulated with furious passion — was unlike anything heard before. Still, few that have proceeded it can match its intensity. In a way, this should have been the piece to cap off the concert.

Instead, Prokofiev’s fifth symphony filled the program after intermission. Although denser instrumentally, it lacks the panoramic magnificence of Beethoven’s seventh, which leaves audiences on a celestial high.

Still, the Russian composer’s 1944 symphony, which premiered at the end of the Second World War, is a formidable showcase for the orchestra, offering almost every section a moment in the spotlight. Indeed, come the bows, nearly each individual musician in the brass and woodwind sections was graciously afforded a solo bow by Muti.

Most memorable from the Prokofiev symphony, perhaps, was the CSO’s sly interpretation of the symphony’s second movement. The upper strings in particular accentuated the angular motifs peppered into the scherzo, both playful and quirky at the same time.

The animated sound radiating from the orchestra, however, is juxtaposed with Muti’s stoic conducting style. He’s not a flashy conductor by any means, only occasionally indulging in a flourish of the baton.

Muti demonstrated why he is one of the great maestros of his generation: assertive yet restrained, showing deep reverence for the music. Every move on the podium is made with intent. The orchestra, which he has led for 13 years, responds with piercing intention.

Throughout his career, Muti has been a champion of Italian opera. How fitting, then, that the encore he selected was the sonorous “Intermezzo” from “Manon Lescaut,” written by his fellow countryman Giacomo Puccini. Beginning with plaintive solos from the cello and viola, it melds into rousing symphonic work, with a languid melody running through the strings.

On Wednesday evening, it was delivered with a tender, spine-tingling beauty, while the sold-out audience listened in rapt silence. What a moment in an unforgettable concert.


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