When the world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by maestro Riccardo Muti, comes to town, it is hard to believe that classical music is an art form in decline.
The Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was packed to the rafters, and by the evening's end, with a rousing standing ovation, high expectations had been fully realized, and yes, this concert will not soon be forgotten.
The evening began with Muti conducting a small string ensemble in a 1772 work by the teen Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his Divertimento in D major, K. 136. I once said on the radio that this piece is the happiest music in my experience, and the opening and closing movements, under Muti's relaxed leadership, bubbled with youthful joy.
I am glad that Muti and the CSO decided to play here the 1939 Violin Concerto by Paul Hindemith, which was the last work he composed before he sought refuge from Nazi Germany in the United States. I do not remember hearing it in the concert hall before.
This work requires a large orchestra, and along the way, these orchestral forces erupt with forceful climaxes. The solo violin part was played with lyrical delicacy by CSO concertmaster Robert Chen. At times Chen's violin seemed overwhelmed by the massed orchestral sound.
Hindemith, a leading proponent of post-World War I neoclassicism, tried in this work to give the violinist lyrical melodies to play, and in the middle movement, Chen drew from the violin's lowest string memorable empathetic moments.
The finale began with a sprightly folk-song-like theme, which reminded me of the composer's 1935 viola concerto entitled "The Swan Turner." The intricate complexities of the orchestral parts were masterfully played by the CSO instrumentalists under Muti's forceful leadership.
It was valuable for me to hear this neglected work, but one can see why violin virtuosos choose to play concertos with more popular appeal: The response of the audience was appreciative but restrained.
The major work of the evening was a compilation, lasting for 48 minutes, of excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev's great ballet, based on William Shakespeare's classic tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet." I heard this 1935 work a few years ago in Foellinger, and then it seemed to me one of Prokofiev's outstanding masterpieces. So I was primed to enjoy it, and from the titanic climaxes of the opening section as played by the CSO and Muti, I knew I was in for a joy ride.
Whether intended as such or not, this Prokofiev ballet music comes across as a "concerto for orchestra." From a superb ensemble as the CSO, the playing of the massed violins, or the lower strings, was a pure delight. The solo passages for woodwinds, especially the flute (Mathieu Dufor), elicited splendid playing from the CSO first desk players.
And the famous CSO brass! What can one say? In climactic passages, the brass players seemed to raise the roof. The assembled percussion players were also stunning, especially in the "Death of Tybalt" section.
After a series of short, delightful segments, this score really goes into high gear with the love music of Romeo and Juliet and its tragic outcome. Here Muti showed himself as the great conductor he is. The alternation of the two big love themes gives opportunities to build up climaxes of searing intensity, and Muti shaped phrasing and adjusted tempos with masterful assurance and control.
The last part, "Romeo at Juliet's Tomb," had wave after wave of gorgeous and heartbreaking melody. This was the gold standard of orchestral playing and conducting!
After the last high and low notes of Prokofiev's score had softened to a whispered end, the applause roared from a swiftly standing audience. Muti moved through the orchestra, eliciting bows from principal players, and then from entire sections to wave after wave of applause. It was a triumph!
A few weeks ago the New York Times Sunday edition had a long and highly laudatory piece about how successful the matching of Muti and the CSO has been. This was high praise from a New York newspaper in a city whose symphony's podium Muti had passed over for Chicago.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.