Riccardo Muti’s youthful leanings emerge

Yo-Yo Ma, Mason Bates
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

Riccardo Muti brings his spring residency and first season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to a vigorous close this week with programs that show several of his many and unusual sides.

Even with some abbreviations and program juggling following health problems that appear to be behind the otherwise youthful-seeming conductor, Chicago players and audiences have learned a number of important things about Muti. He takes every score with almost extreme seriousness, whether a world premiere (even one with electronics), an acknowledged masterpiece or a work from the past that he believes is unjustly neglected. Careful study, focused rehearsals and both precision and passion in performance follow.

Muti also finds beautiful sound even in less than beautiful works. Although some critics of his roles with prior orchestras claimed that he was looking for one specific “Muti” sound, I have not found that to be the case. He wants his players to bring the same level of focus and care that he offers as a model, but he does not sacrifice strengths of particular sections or individuals.

And his varied repertoire includes some unusual pieces that he is determined to cycle through at least once with each orchestra he has led for a long period.

This week’s concerts offer evidence of all of these aspects. As he did with his first commissioned work last week, “Danza Petrificada” by Bernard Rands, Muti approached the 2009 “The B-Sides” by CSO Mead composer-in-residence Mason Bates with the attention and intensity that he brings to a Verdi opera or choral work. Coming to many of the young composer’s references and tools — house music, a laptop, techno grooves, lounge atmospheres — Muti brought the piece to life as if it were his own heart’s desire. And for 20-plus minutes, it was.

Bates, 34, is one of the few composers out there who can pull acoustic and electronic instruments and sound worlds into an integrated and original whole. He hears harmonies and understands the complexities of orchestration and instrumentation that elude most others who try to incorporate pop influences. The West African djembe drum and rhythms in the acoustical-only second movement, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei),” and the click-clicking of a typewriter in the background of the fourth movement, also laptop-free, “Temescal Noir,” actually reinforced Bates’ achievements with the three computer- and tape-supplemented movements. Muti wanted to try something new to him — as well as to the orchestra and audience — when he appointed Bates and Anna Clyne, 30, to the resident composer spots. Judging from the tremendous ovation from offstage and on, he’s on to something.

What’s left to say about Yo-Yo Ma in the Schumann Cello Concerto, or any other repertoire staple? Technical command, purity of tone, generosity of spirit all remain there after decades before the public. (His commitment beyond the showpieces has him taking a leadership role with the CSO in youth and education programs. He and Muti will host the culmination of their Youth in Music Festival with a free program on Sunday at noon at Orchestra Hall.) What could be singled out here was the way that Muti, concertmaster Robert Chen and principal cello John Sharp were all able to take things down in volume to create the sounds and mood of chamber music.

As on Tuesday, when Muti led the season’s one performance of Hindemith’s 1940 Symphony in E-flat, Muti also is including another of the rarities he champions and which he will take on tour with the orchestra to Europe in late summer, “Aus Italien” (“From Italy”). It’s an early, 1886 sprawling work of Richard Strauss. With the exception of performances by Erich Leinsdorf 25 years ago, the work never became a part of the downtown repertoire after the early 20th century. Unlike the mid-career Hindemith, which is strange and bulky and sounds like a pedagogical assignment for a counterpoint teacher, “Aus Italien” at least points to the great music that Strauss would soon start pouring out for more than 60 years. A sort of “What a Bavarian Student Saw on His Summer Vacation,” this wide-eyed response to Italy has wonderful technical accomplishments, a beautiful prelude and a raucous brass-embellished ending that Muti drove to a fare-thee-well. (Strauss thought that Denza’s popular “Funiculi, Funicula” was a “well-known Neapolitan folk song.”)

Muti returns in September with music of Ibert, Tchaikovsky, his mentor Nino Rota, Liszt, and another strange German work, this time by Wagner. He will surely make them thrilling and more beautiful than we might expect. All that, and a bag of chips.