Music review: Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony at Segerstrom Hall

02.18.12
Mason Bates
Los Angeles Times

By Richard S. Ginell

The mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra -– made great by Fritz Reiner and turbocharged by Georg Solti -– last visited Southern California 25 years ago this month, playing one concert in then-new Segerstrom Hall and three in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

Much has happened at the CSO since. The Daniel Barenboim era came and went. More than half of the personnel has changed over and it landed the much-coveted Riccardo Muti as its new music director. And with the convenient convergence of the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial and Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 25th anniversary, the CSO was finally lured back Friday night -– this time in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.   

Yet our ears have changed too. I remember when the CSO blew through town and turned heads with its staggering precision and ability to get a big sound out of recalcitrant halls like the Chandler and old Segerstrom. Now, with the upgrade in technical standards here and elsewhere, the CSO no longer seems so startling.  And in newer Segerstrom, the still-brawny Chicago brasses worked too hard, which they didn’t have to in this space, where the adjustable setting was much too reverberant. 

There was only one concert this trip, but it was a bold one -– loaded with future-shock pieces past and present and one oldie that has dropped off the radar, Franck’s Symphony in D minor.  At 70, Muti looks exactly the same and conducts with the same vigor and expressiveness as he did in his last visits with the Philadelphia in the 1980s.

Muti opened with Honegger’s rowdy machine music from the 1920s, “Pacific 231” -– as dynamic, militant and exciting a performance as you can imagine. That was a perfect prelude for CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates’ fascinating new “Alternative Energy,” a 26-minute, four-movement “energy symphony” that illustrates mankind’s obsession over the centuries with more and more potent and destructive sources of energy.  Percussion “instruments” found in a Chicago junkyard bop and batter away, ferocious electronic sounds swoop from Bates’ laptop, the orchestra produces novel sonorities of its own. The piece has a jazzy, lurching verve that Muti seemed absolutely in tune with.

One could tell why Franck’s symphony is not as popular as it used to be; he comes up with fine tunes but hammers away at them to the point where one performance becomes plenty. Muti produced beautifully shaped, even Italianate phrasing, particularly in the strings, while resisting any indulgent wanderings.

No encores, alas.