Tonight marks the opening of the one hundred and twenty-first season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the return of the maestro Riccardo Muti. He had some health problems back in February, but the way he conducted tonight made it seem as if he were still in his forties (Muti was born in 1941…I’ll let you do the math). And it was an absolutely fabulous night!
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Muti, kicked the program off with Giuseppe Verdi’s Overture to Giovanna d’Arco, which is an overture to an opera about Joan of Arc. It begins with a tremulous minor key, and gradually expands to explode with a sforzando mix of percussion, brass, and stringed instruments, depicting the chaos of Hundred Years’ War. Then Joan rides in, shrouded in mystery and depicted by a creeping strings melody. The music suddenly switches to a medley of wind solos, calmer, yet no less mysterious. But it continues along with this theme, gradually making the music calmer and kinder; livelier and fun with staccatos played in harmony by the flute and clarinet. All the instruments of the orchestra eventually come together again, in a major key this time, depicting the French army’s victory over the English. This piece was certainly a very lively start to the season, and seemed to pave the way for a triumphant entry. It also was quite appropriate to mark the beginning of the season with an overture (an overture is most commonly used as a sort of prologue to an opera), as if the CSO were introducing us to the exciting things to come in the upcoming year.
Yefim Bronfman (one day I’ll have to ask him how his name is pronounced) came on next with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16. Although I’m not so used to listening to more modern forms of music filled with more distorted chords, I still enjoyed the piece filled with the haunting harmonies of the piano. However, one minor criticism I have for this piece was that the sound technicians should have miked the grand piano better, because it was sometimes difficult to hear the piano over the orchestra. Either that or Bronfman wasn’t playing loud enough. Or I wasn’t sitting in the right section. But otherwise, it was played with a flawless technique that had everyone on their feet in the end.
The show was stolen though, by the last performance by the CSO: The Four Seasons by Verdi. Not Vivaldi. I was actually glad, though, because I see Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as a slightly clichéd, overplayed piece. In addition, Verdi’s version carefully showcases each part of the orchestra instead of basing most of the piece around the string section, which is the case in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was also very appropriate for tonight, being the “season” opener (someone’s got a sense of humour) and encompassing the entirety of a year into one musical masterpiece, as if saying that this night would just be a taste of much, much more to come.
Verdi’s Four Seasons has a definite ballet dance style to it, which makes it quite lively in the way that entices a listener to begin moving to the music. Muti was certainly not an exception, judging by the way he conducted (i.e. bounced) with the music instead of merely waving his wand! To be honest, I almost laughed out loud in delight a few times, but managed to restrain myself. But that passion was what really drew me and the other two thousand plus people to engage with the beautiful music.
Verdi begins with winter, an icy yet warm-hearted spirit who dances in order to keep warm. I especially enjoyed the pizzicato of the strings here, which replicated the effect of melting icicles plip-plopping to the ground. The orchestra then warmed its way to spring, where flowers hover on the edge of blooming with the trembling of the strings and strumming of the harp. And suddenly, the flowers burst open in all its colourful glory, marked by the snare drum. Then the clarinet played a solo, and the lilting melody that followed implied spring’s alluring personality as it slowly reveals more and more of its beauty. Summer took over eventually, with the oboe singing an enchanting yet haunting melody, while rain falls gently and harvesters go into the fields to collect corn. But summer is a very festive and playful season, and this was shown by the wind and string instruments combining to play a waltz that makes me recall Strauss’ Blue Danube.
Last but not least was autumn, which contains several flurries of activity from all sections of the orchestra, like scurrying workers trying to collect the last grains of the harvest before winter returns. Again, it was very lively, especially towards the end when even the percussion joined in the fun. I thought all the themes and melodies for autumn were delicate yet delightful, in particular when the strings flowed in an easygoing melody that brought images of hot air balloons rising lazily into the sky, with the circus and carnival all rolled into one big festive event going on below. I think the most telling sign of the entire piece’s liveliness, though, was the fact that the flautist and clarinetist were all red by the end, and I even saw Muti take a quick break a few times, looking as if all he wanted to do was stand back and let the orchestra play itself. Ha! I certainly can’t blame him for feeling that way, but I think I would have preferred being up there with him, conducting and bouncing along with the Four Seasons cloaked in the colours of music. My hat’s off to you, Muti, and to everyone who made this night a night to remember!