CSO, Muti and Soloists In Eloquent Conversation with Mozart

Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in Mozart’s “Symphony No. 36” on March 15, 2018. (Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography)Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in Mozart’s “Symphony No. 36” on March 15, 2018. (Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

A memorable moment from the film version of Peter Shaffer’s play, “Amadeus,” came rushing back to mind as I listened to this weekend’s glorious, spirit-altering concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which opened with Haydn’s “Symphony No. 89” and was followed by two works by his younger contemporary, Mozart – the “Sinfonia concertante in E Flat Major” and “Symphony No. 36 in C Major.”

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In the film, an inspired suggestion of how Mozart took real-life moments and translated them into music of surpassing beauty came as the agitated face of a coloratura soprano practicing her scales morphed into the character of Konstanze in Mozart’s opera, “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”

True, there was no literal singing in this concert, which clearly found Maestro Riccardo Muti in a rapturous bond with the music. But listening to the interplay between the soloists in Mozart’s glorious “Sinfonia” – Robert Chen, the CSO’s exceptional concertmaster on violin, and guest artist Paul Neubauer, the widely acclaimed violist – there was unquestionably a remarkable conversation of string-generated voices to be heard.

With the two soloists standing together in front of a reduced orchestra that supplied a radiant “third voice,” the beauty and emotional brilliance of Mozart’s writing was writ large. The complexity and surprising modernity of this work could be heard from the opening bars, creating a sense that this was an expanded chamber work even more than a symphony.

As the two string soloists engaged in dramatic, mood-shifting conversation with each other their fluid back and forth captured a sense of urgency and full emotional engagement that ideally revealed how Mozart winningly played on the different voices and personalities of the instruments. It was a fine reminder of the composer’s immense maturity and subtly dramatic impulses. (The work was composed in 1779, when Mozart was just 23.)

Chen’s silky playing of the evocative violin solo was rich in tone and feeling, with Neubauer providing the more philosophical sound of the viola. And the orchestra added more colors. The lively fourth and final movement of the piece, with the eloquent string section buttressed by two horns and two oboes, was alone enough to reignite one’s faith in humanity.

The “Symphony No. 36” announced itself with a bold opening passage but then quickly moved into that gently seductive sweep of Mozartian melody that carries you below the beautiful surface. Muti, often restrained to the point of stillness, was sensitive to every modulation and to the way the forward motion in the music was, once again, a form of conversation.

The slow, dreamy dance of the piece’s second movement (including some accents from the timpani), ceded to the stronger sound of horns. A waltz tempo permeated the third movement, and then it was on to the final buoyant movement that unspooled with a spiraling grace and ease that inspired a sense of complete elation.

None of this is to sidestep the joy of listening to the Haydn symphony that opened the program.

If Mozart’s work sings, Haydn’s dances, and it does so in the formal but ebullient style of a courtly gavotte or minuet. It is decorous but never pompous, and often fiercely exuberant and playful in a way that suggests a man of a certain status who takes genuine delight in life while also observing the social graces of his time.

Muti and the orchestra (including a fine contingent of brass and reeds) turned the work’s fast-moving final movement into a blithe musical party with just the right burst of fireworks.

One final note: It is believed that late in 1783, Franz Joseph Haydn, then 52 years old and the most celebrated composer in Europe, very likely met Mozart, the prodigy who was now 28 and gaining considerable fame. The two composers became friends. And while their generational differences may have had something to do with the fact that Haydn, unlike Mozart’s nemesis, Salieri, was already at the top of his game, beyond envy and open to new ideas. Whatever the reason, to his credit he celebrated the genius of Mozart (who would die in 1791 at the age of 35), and he even wrote to a friend: “If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the souls of high personages, in particular...the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.”

Next up: The CSO and Muti will return to the Symphony Center stage this week (March 22, 23 and 24 at 8 p.m.) in a concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, led by Duain Wolfe.

On the program will be Schubert’s “Mass in E-flat Major,” as well as the world premiere of “Three Lisel Mueller Settings” (a CSO-commissioned work by one of its violists, Max Raimi, inspired by the poetry of the Chicago-based poet of its title), plus the Overture to Weber’s opera, “Oberon.”

For tickets call (312) 294-3000 or visit www.cso.org.

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