Seven cities and nine concerts equalled overwhelming acclaim for Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on their 2017 U.S. Fall Tour, which began Oct. 11 in Kansas City, Mo., and continued through Oct. 22 at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall. With sold-out concerts in several California cities, including Berkeley, Costa Mesa and San Diego, the tour proved to be a complete triumph for Muti and the CSO.
In every city, classical music critics and correspondents hailed Maestro Muti and his orchestra, with many lauding Muti for his stewardship of the vaunted CSO sound. “The homogeneity of instrumental texture he achieved couldn’t be beat,” wrote critic Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times. “Liquid winds marvelously blended with stirring brass. Fabulous strings played as one. … Muti allowed all the time in the world for us to take this all in. He drew out every pause, pregnant with meaning. He painstakingly ascended to glorious, heaven-opening climaxes and faded slowly, oh so slowly, to heart-stopping black, a black so empty it felt like sensory deprivation.”
In the Orange County Register, Paul Hodgins declared: “Muti’s conducting is an elegant and understated language of his own making.”
Meanwhile, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Muti has clearly tempered the ensemble’s vigor with a vein of expansive nobility — the understanding that a quiet statement, uttered with authority, can pack at least as potent a punch as any amount of blazing intensity. The result is a striking blend of expressive nuance and sheer sonic force.”
The L.A. Times’ Swed praised the CSO’s ensemble playing: “The homogeneity of instrumental texture he achieved couldn’t be beat. Liquid winds marvelously blended with stirring brass. Fabulous strings played as one. The percussion section sounded made not for banging but melody.”
Writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Marcus Overton observed: “The serene trust between Muti and his players revealed another aspect of the orchestra’s personality. Forty-three years later [after his Ravinia debut], he is no longer a thunderbolt but a vessel, opening himself to the music and players, channeling their concentration and energy. Every phrase — whether melody or counterpoint, prominent or hidden in the musical fabric — had a clear beginning and ending, as if the music were weaving itself out of nothing.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Kosman singled out the CSO’s dynamics. “The orchestra’s expansive and keenly colored sonorities remain as impressive as ever, from the dark-hued, weighty string sections to the clarion freshness of the brass. … Perhaps the most dazzling aspect of the performance was the orchestra’s pinpoint control of dynamics. In the opening movement of the Schubert … Muti chose a surprisingly slow tempo, but made it pay off through a series of microscopically fine-tuned shifts in volume, which the orchestra executed flawlessly.”
Elizabeth Ogonek’s All These Lighted Things, a CSO commission from the Mead co-composer-in-residence, was performed in Kansas City and Berkeley, both times to critical acclaim. Carlyn Kessler of the San Francisco Classical Voice lauded the work’s rhythmic qualities as well as its lyricism: “The music is driven by its dancing rhythms, which become swinging and jazzy in the last dance. … The strings, winds and brass, played hauntingly beautiful melodies with a Stravinsky-esque lyricism. … The juxtaposed themes and creeping transitions painted a real depiction of the human experience and our perception of the world around us, complete with moments of joy and sorrow, and maybe something in between.”
The tour featured several selections from the Austro-German canon, long considered the CSO’s trademark repertoire. Among the works performed were Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished), Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (Romantic).
Of the latter, the San Francisco Classical Voice’s Kessler wrote, “At 69 minutes, [the Bruckner Fourth] is a feat to play, especially in the unwaveringly energetic manner in which CSO presented it. This was a triumphant display for the CSO’s musicians. … Muti’s sentiment and fluidity of movement, a joy to watch, carried the orchestra seamlessly through the piece and captured the symphony’s heart-wrenching journey.”
Stephen Williamson, the CSO’s principal clarinet, was applauded his solo turn in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto: “Williamson produced an appropriately Mozartian sound — pure, clean and unfussy,” said the Hodgins of the Orange County Register. “His elastic tempos were in the playful spirit of the work.”
Several critics remarked on the power of music, as performed at the level of the CSO’s, to connect audiences to a larger purpose. “Music played like this changes us, makes us better,” said San Diego Union-Tribune’s Overton. “More important, it points us to the world outside the concert hall, urges us to be engaged, to make a contribution.”