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May 2011
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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

The View from Here: CSO and Muti: new work from Bernard Rands, new life for Strauss’s “Death” and Prokofiev’s lovers

My Saturday May 7 Chicago Sun-Times review of the Thursday May 5, 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra program with music director Riccardo Muti in music of Bernard Rands, Richard Strauss, and Prokofiev.

Bernard Rands

Bernard Rands

Riccardo Muti and the CSO at April 8, 2011 concert ~Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Riccardo Muti and the CSO at April 8, 2011 concert ~Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Riccardo Muti and the CSO offer us life and transfiguration in a wide-ranging program

Bernard Rands world première, Strauss, and Prokofiev in the mix


It’s another week in the life of Riccardo Muti.

Wednesday morning the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director learned he’d won Spain’s 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts. Then, after a day of CSO rehearsals, he was honored downtown Wednesday evening with the Music Institute of Chicago’s Dushkin Award for his role as music educator. And Muti being Muti, he didn’t waltz in and out of the benefit but stayed for the school’s full event including a musical postlude by its students.

Thursday saw the kick-off of the CSO’s 10-day Youth in Music Festival which Muti shares artistic leadership of with the orchestra’s Green creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma. (Muti will lead a free open rehearsal of young musicians from Chicago and Mexico City at Orchestra Hall Monday at 6:30 p.m. And visit the website, too.) And, oh yes, there was a concert Thursday night at Orchestra Hall with a world première the conductor had commissioned for his inaugural season and to salute last year’s double anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence and Revolution.

The British-born American Bernard Rands was Muti’s choice for the first new work in his Chicago directorship. Rands, a youthful 77, was composer in residence for three years of Muti’s time leading the Philadelphia Orchestra and, through conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, also has strong connections to the CSO and his adopted hometown. He is a composer of unique technical gifts and abilities who makes music that, unlike many in the field of orchestral composition, does not sound like anyone else’s but does sound like something.

As with the haunting orchestral interludes in his long-awaited Van Gogh opera, Vincent, which had its world première performances at Indiana University in Bloomington last month, Rands has a way of creating the aural equivalent of a visual scrim so that sounds and layers of sound move in and out of the foreground, often as in a kind of haze. Rather than making yet another suite of “Mexican folktunes” — Rands does not do hackneyed — for his 11-minute Danza Petrificada (“Petrified Dance,” the title coming from a poem by the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz), he incorporated rhythms and percussive sounds from many parts of that country — cicadas, seemingly everywhere! — into a rich and highly-crafted score for large virtuoso orchestra. Muti had devoted his recent break at his Italian home to learning this work and conducted it as if he had known it for years. He will take it with the CSO on its late summer European tour and while it could benefit from a fuller and lengthier ending, I look forward to repeated hearings.

The program continued with pieces that both Muti and the CSO have known for years, decades even and, in the case of Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 by Richard Strauss, more than a century. The CSO’s founder, Theodore Thomas, was a Strauss friend and champion and the German composer’s tone-poems have figured in the orchestra’s history now for 120 years. Muti’s special gifts here were in finding the gentleness, and even the sense of dance, in this music that we so often think is full of shouting, and in the level of playing he gained from every member of the ensemble.

I’ll admit that I’m in the minority in finding that a little Prokofiev goes a long way in the concert hall so that Muti’s super-sized 48-minute double-suite from the Soviet composer’s 1935-26 Romeo and Juliet was a stretch, however beautifully he and the musicians played it. These are vignettes, often repetitive and wearing their emotions on the surface — or even wearing the wrong emotions: Why is Tybalt killed to circus music? — and coming more fully to life at the ballet.

Still, Muti understands Prokofiev’s cinematic methods well and in his symphonic threading together of 10 selections gives us breathtaking split-screens, cross-fades, close-ups, and widescreen pans. The solos by almost every principal player were stunning and Charles Pikler even brought an antique viola d’amore (above, left) from home to capture the intimate sound of Juliet’s heart.

Muti offered an impromptu salute to the instrument at concert’s end, holding it and the “regular” viola aloft, stopping the audience’s ovations, and cracking wise.