Like many arts institutions, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a rough time early on in the pandemic. But it gradually compensated for the loss of live performances and live audiences in a variety of creative ways, most notably with its virtual CSOtv Sessions series in which small ensembles gathered on the Orchestra Hall stage to perform richly varied programs for streaming.
Then, in late spring, as some restrictions began to be lifted, small, carefully masked and distanced audiences were welcomed back to Orchestra Hall, and ever larger groups of musicians gradually gathered on the stage for a series of three different concerts, all exceptional.
The return of Maestro Riccardo Muti for his fall residency — his first performances with the CSO since February 2020 — was announced in mid-June, signaling a most crucial rebirth of “normalcy.” And this past Friday evening, as something of an overture to this much-heralded news, a formidable contingent of CSO musicians arrived on the Ravinia Festival’s Pavilion stage to mark the start of the orchestra’s 15-program summer residency in Highland Park that will run through Aug. 15.
Both the musicians and the large audience joyfully applauded each other on Friday, with Marin Alsop stepping onto the podium for her first season as Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator. And after opening this first CSO program at the festival with a stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the program moved on to a rousing performance of Joan Tower’s brief but forceful “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” (with horns and timpani at full blast). Then came an absolutely exquisite performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23,” with Jorge Osorio as the soloist whose beautifully fleet fingering and seamless blend of delicacy and strength was impeccably matched by the orchestra. Finally there was a fascinating rendering of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” marked by an unusually lyrical yet fiercely powerful performance by the ever-splendid orchestra.
And now comes the exciting news of the complete programming planned for Symphony Center from September through the December 2021 holiday season.
In addition to the series of Maestro Muti’s concerts, the fall season will mark the arrival of violinist Hilary Hahn, recently named the CSO’s artist-in-residence, visits by many guest conductors and artists, plus a vast and varied lineup under the Symphony Center Presents banner featuring its ever popular jazz, chamber music and piano series.
Also on the docket will be the first CSO MusicNow program curated by Jessie Montgomery, the newly appointed Mead composer-in-residence (who is well worth getting to know), concerts by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, CSO for Kids concerts, and a CSO at the Movies presentation on Thanksgiving weekend. In December, the CSO and Chicago Symphony Chorus (prepped by Chorus Director Duain Wolfe), will join to perform Handel’s “Messiah.”
And now for some even more exciting news as fall 2021 marks the centenaries of two major musical events.
One is the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” which the composer himself came to Chicago in 1921 to perform. This time around the CSO will be joined by the formidable Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, with Michael Tilson Thomas guest conducting.
The other is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the Argentinean bandoneon virtuoso and composer whose brilliant transformation of the tango (as part of the “nuevo tango” movement) drew on classical counterpoint and jazz. Two programs in November will celebrate his work. One will be a CSO concert led by guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and featuring the “Aconcagua Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra,” with soloist Daniel Binelli. The other will be a Symphony Center Presents event featuring the Grammy Award-winning Quinteto Astor Piazzolla making its first appearance at Symphony Center.
Time to strap on your dancing shoes!
For complete details about the season, as well as tickets, visit cso.org or phone (312) 294-3000.
Program information about the remainder of the 2021-2022 season will be announced in October. But here are a few hints: Muti will conduct Beethoven’s Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies (no doubt making up for the pandemic’s curtailment of the CSO’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth). The CSO will give its first performances of fabled African American composer Florence Price’s 1938 “Symphony No. 3,” as well Philip Glass’ 2017 “Symphony No. 11.” And it also will present the world premieres of CSO-commissioned works by former Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli and current Composer-in Residence Jessie Montgomery.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic