The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night featured what could be described as a typical all-Beethoven program, the kind heard each year in music halls across the country, but the results were anything but typical.
Although he does present world premieres and his share of off-beat repertoire, Riccardo Muti was primarily hired as music director to make the expected unexpected. And that is exactly what he did Thursday at Orchestra Hall in one of his finest conducting jobs since his appointment in 2010.
Even though the two main works on Thursday’s program — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and No. 8 — are part of the bedrock of the symphonic repertoire and are familiar to regular orchestral goers, he managed to inject a sense of interpretative suspense, and compelled listeners to sit up and listen anew.
How did he do it? It is, of course, impossible, to fully explain the alchemy that goes into, dare we say, a great performance like this. On one hand, it means going back to the fundamentals and paying attention to the tiniest nuances when it comes to tempo, dynamics and articulation.
On the other hand, it’s a matter of artistically transcending those elements. And that’s where Muti, who turned 80 in July, draws on a lifetime of confronting, performing and living with this music.
Of course, no such performance would be possible without a first-rate orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony was in particularly fine form. There were highlights aplenty from the dark, resonant low strings in the Symphony No. 5 to the note-perfect French horns that lit up both symphonies, especially principal David Cooper and associate principal Daniel Gingrich in the third movement of the No. 8.
The playing was all the more impressive considering the musicians, like so many other workers, have had to undergo heightened COVID-19 testing protocols and must now wear masks during performances (all but the wind and brass sections). To its credit, the CSO , unlike such fellow arts organizations as the Joffrey Ballet or Lyric Opera of Chicago, has not had to cancel or postpone any performances this season, even with the recent onslaught of the omicron variant.
The evening’s big draw was the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, with its emphatic opening eight-note motif that is regularly heard on television commercials and everywhere else. But this work has much more to offer than those first seconds, as this bold, full-bodied and, yes, sometimes suspenseful performance made abundantly clear, especially the big, resplendent finale with the glory of the CSO brass on view.
An argument could be made, though, that the highlight of this concert was the Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, which might be slightly under-recognized if that can be said about any Beethoven symphony. The orchestra offered a nuanced, sensitive interpretation of this work that conveyed both its subtle complexities and inner contrasts.
This take was marked as much by what Muti did as what he didn’t do, an approach that was most evident in the second movement, which is marked allegretto, a tempo that is meant to be neither too fast nor too slow. In his hands, the music was appealingly sprightly.
Muti often did not beat time during this section, sometimes letting his right arm rest as his side, as he kind of nudged the playing along with a simple gesture or facial expression. He clearly trusted the musicians and didn’t want in any way to dampen the music’s innately light, free-flowing spirit.
This minimalist tack could be seen to a lesser degree elsewhere as well, including the first movement, in which Muti captured the genial feel of this section while assuring a sense of drive and momentum.
His most overt, involved conducting came in the final movement, with Muti imbuing this section with energy and pop, snappily executing its constant shifts in texture from galloping rhythms to gentle motifs and maximizing all the thrills it has to offer.
Overshadowed by the two symphonies was the evening’s opener, the “Coriolan” Overture, Op. 62. It was inspired by “Coriolanus,” a play by Beethoven’s friend, Heinrich von Collin, and it packs surprising drama into its compact eight minutes.