Muti at CSO
Riccardo Muti, the outgoing music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted the music of Wagner, Montgomery and Rachmaninov last week at Symphony Center. 

Riccardo Muti is now in the final stretch of his 13-year stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Before he retires from that post, there are still a handful of CSO concerts the 81-year-old Italian conductor will lead here in Chicago. Last week, he took the podium for a concert featuring the work of Wagner, Montgomery and Rachmaninov.

The first work on the program was Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhäuser”. Muti ensured that the quiet opening had the gentle tentativeness of walking into another world — not merely the fictional places that inform the story, but Wagner’s unique sound world. The music grew slowly, emerging with arcs of drama.

There was spine-tingling power from the trombones and tuba. Languorous long notes at the top of the orchestra were supported with urgent, faster rhythms in the basses. The music had sheen and vibrant color. The forceful conclusion was dazzling, with bold brass, shiny strings and worthy woodwinds.

This was followed by a world premiere composed by the CSO’s talented Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery. “Transfigure to Grace” is a re-working of “Passage”, an earlier composition. “Passage” is a chamber music piece (scored for flute, clarinet, horn and string quartet) written specifically for the Dance Theater of Harlem, and was inspired by the 1619 Project. It was first performed in 2019 at the Virginia Arts Festival, with choreography by Claudia Schreier. Montgomery used ideas and themes from “Passage” for “Transfigure to Grace.”

It opens with shimmering strings, creating a sense of light bouncing off water. A two-note gesture is repeated, creating a sense of the back and forth movement of the waves on the high seas. Throughout, Montgomery establishes the close connection of her music to water, and this gives the entire work a special flow. This is true, even though the piece is distinctly episodic. Montgomery often employs melodic fragments that swirl into being and then vanish.

Knowing that the genesis of the work was concerned with twin themes of water and the birth of American slavery, it was surprising that the piece had many upbeat sections. And while the music swells and builds to its final conclusion, when the ending came, you were actually unclear that it was over. Muti stood with his arms out for several seconds, and it was only when he dropped them and silence continued, that the applause came. This made me wish that I could see the original “Passage” along with dance, because it seems that there is much in this piece — notably its lively and peculiar punchiness — that could be elucidated powerfully in accompanying movement.

Nonetheless, when Montgomery walked on stage, the audience bestowed upon her warm and appreciative applause. She has already made her mark with Chicago audiences.

After the intermission, Muti and the CSO returned for the biggest work on the program, Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. It was written in the first decade of the 20th century and for the first 60 years or so it was often performed in cut versions that reduced the full hour-length symphony into a more modest 35 or 40 minute frame.

Muti gave us the whole shebang, with each of the four movements given loving treatment. It opened with calm in the upper strings and drama in the lower. The music unfolded with poise; the tension built slowly and Muti established a sense of yearning.

The Allegro molto featured scurrying violins and charming chirps from the woodwinds. The lively music was full of energy without sacrificing luxurious, full sound.

What was memorable about the Adagio, one of the sweetest things Rachmaninov ever wrote, was that Muti and his forces gave it Romantic fervor without promoting tooth decay. The sound was like voluptuous velvet, and the orchestra exuded warmth and sparkling joy. The legato playing was smooth as polished glass and immensely satisfying.

The orchestra was bursting with vim for the final movement, which Muti navigated with ease. But he did not let the excitement of the score overwhelm him, offering refined and careful transitions. The conclusion was infused with emotional intensity and virtuosic playing.

Muti will conduct several other concerts before leaving his music directorship at the CSO. On May 18, 19, 20 and 23 he will conduct music of Cimarosa and Mozart. On May 25, 26 and 27 he will conduct music of Respighi, Mozart and Kraft. On June 15, 16 and 17 he will conduct the music of Schubert, Schifrin and Schubert. And on June 23, 24 and 25 he will conduct Beethoven’s grand “Missa Solemnis.” Visit for more information.

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