Review: Muti begins CSO residency with exuberant premiere

Riccardo Muti strode briskly to the podium Thursday evening at Symphony Center, looking as if he were determined to make the most of his locally abbreviated winter residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

There was no time to linger in the critical accolades the music director and his band brought home with them from their swing through the Canary Islands, Germany and Luxembourg earlier this month. Not with a world premiere to present here this weekend, not to mention the launch of a major Muti initiative on behalf of Franz Schubert.

The Schubert celebration, which the CSO is sharing with its presenting arm, Symphony Center Presents, will by the end of the season bring performances of all eight symphonies and the neglected Mass in A flat, all under Muti's direction, plus a good deal more in the way of solo piano and chamber music.

Even so, the primary business Thursday night was the first performance of a new double cello concerto by the Sicilian-born composer Giovanni Sollima, commissioned by the orchestra for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO's creative consultant, and the composer-cellist himself. The work bears the rather forbidding Latin title "Antidotum Tarantulae XXI," but there is nothing forbidding about this colorful, exuberant crowd-pleaser.

Sollima and Muti share a common southern-Italian cultural heritage that runs like an undercurrent through his duo concerto, the third work Muti has commissioned from the 51-year-old composer and performer. Passing quotations from obscure 16th and 17th century Italian composers inform the work's five connected sections. Although Italian in origin, these archaic tunes carry the distinctive tinge of Hebraic or Sephardic folk music. By turns wistful and jaunty, they give the 22-minute piece a gently nostalgic quality, like echoes from a fondly recalled musical past.

The cello writing ranges from raptly lyrical to hyperactive. The second section, a skittish hoedown, had Sollima and Ma furiously scrubbing away in accented, 16th-note patterns over chugging strings and whooping brasses. The third section found the cellists intertwining long, sighing phrases over the faint accompaniment of an ocean drum, a large, handheld percussion instrument filled with pebbles that, when slowly rotated, simulated the slosh of ocean waves.

Being a good southern Italian, Sollima could not fail to include the native dance known as the tarantella. His version, based on music by one Athanasius Kircher, sported lurching cello lines that ushered in the concluding section, a series of variations based on a love sonnet by Leonardo Da Vinci. The final pages found the two soloists and orchestra hurtling to the double-bar in crazed rhythmic lockstep, as if trying to dance off the effects of a tarantula bite.

A work for the ages? Hardly. But the concerto is well-made and, in Thursday's terrific premiere performance, sent the audience home happy. Sollima may well go down in history as the only composer of consequence after Vivaldi to pen a double cello concerto. It proved to be a knockout showpiece for the combined virtuosity of the composer and his newfound colleague. Ma, as usual, could do no wrong, caressing the cello strings when he wasn't burning them up. Sollima proved no slouch himself in the bravura department. Muti and the orchestra discharged their accompanimental duties with comparable commitment. When it was all over, the cellists hugged each other, Muti embraced them both and the audience rose in happy acclamation.

By neat coincidence, these weekend CSO concert coincide with Schubert's 217th birthday. Muti appeared to be in a party mood, bookending the program with Schubert's Symphony No. 3 in D major and Symphony No. 4 in C minor ("Tragic"), ingratiating works written when the prolific Austrian composer was only a teenager.

For both symphonies Muti used a larger body of strings than Schubert probably envisioned. But so light were the textures, crisp the rhythms and precise the dynamics that nothing felt thick or heavy. Indeed, the maestro's "traditional" orchestral palette produced the appropriate gravitas and drama in a Schubert symphony that bears the nickname "Tragic."

Muti devoted particular attention to bringing out an Italianate, cantabile quality in the Andante of the Fourth Symphony. Here, as with the rest of his reading, singing warmth resided on judicious balances and noticeably close attention to gradations of loud, soft and in-between.

Similarly, the tempos for Symphony No. 3 were comfortable and genial without feeling slack. This music wears a smile throughout. Muti stressed its sunny Mozartean elegance, drawing shapely playing from his musicians and fine contributions in particular from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, in the coy opening theme, and oboist Eugene Izotov and bassoonist William Buchman in the laendler-like trio of the Menuetto movement.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S, Michigan Ave.; $45-$280; 312-294-3000,

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