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Moving ahead minus Muti: Fisch ably leads challenging program

Asher Fisch
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

While they await word on music director Riccardo Muti’s condition, Chicago Symphony Orchestra administrators and the orchestra itself have been making the best of a difficult situation. As the ailing Muti undergoes medical tests and consults with doctors in Milan, Italy, British conductor Harry Bicket filled in at Tuesday evening’s concert to good reports, and this week Israeli Asher Fisch, in town to prepare performances of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, is doing excellent stand-in duty.

The program was much anticipated as it was to be the first chance to hear Muti lead a core repertory work as music director — Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” And Muti, an eclectic and mischievous program maker, also had slated the Carlos Chavez “Sinfonia india,” a major work of Mexican classical music, and Richard Wagner’s little-known “American Centennial March,” a very minor work of a very great composer, for the concert’s first half.

Fisch, 52, who worked extensively as a young man in Berlin with former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and has an international opera-conducting career, was asked to lead this unusual array without changes and he gamely assented. Thursday night he proved himself more than worthy and an amiable and attractive guide for the audience as well.

CSO founder Theodore Thomas commissioned the Wagner march from the man he esteemed and advocated above all other composers for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Its commission is a story of non-connecting egos and financial folly and evidence that even a great artist can make a mistake. Thomas gave a few more performances of the work after its unimpressive debut — including with the CSO in 1900 — and it then sank back into deserved obscurity. Schiff gave a humorous introduction before leading the 12-minute bit of repetitive bombast as if it were the most important piece in the world. The players took the same position.

The Chavez work, from 1935-36, is much more deserving of this sort of attention. This brief, one-movement Indian symphony takes its material from two peoples of the state of Sonora and one from Nayarit and weaves them into an exciting work with rhythmic, melodic and timbral debts to native Mexican music.

The Beethoven proved remarkable. With the experience of Bernard Haitink’s June CSO Beethoven Festival still fresh in the ears, Fisch offered an original and highly serious take on the piece. Notching down both volume and speed, Fisch brought out the rhythmic cells at work in each movement allowing you to hear the much-loved symphony both analytically and with joy. The orchestra and its section leaders gave what he asked for and did so beautifully.