Serenade Mozart review: A scintillating performance for CSO, Riccardo Muti

The countdown to the June high of Riccardo Muti's 13-year tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took a surprising turn Thursday night with the first of four concerts.

To celebrate the end of such an important era, it's only natural to expect conductors and orchestras to put on major blockbuster works or eye-catching premieres like they did last week with a program that included Symphony No.

But this week, Muti took the opposite tack and went small. Very small. Indeed, the middle section of the second act of the concert — Wolfgang Mozart's Serenade in B-flat Major, K. 361/370a (“Gran Partita”) — features only 13 musicians, and is, in fact, not an orchestral piece at all. .

Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Riccardo Muti, conductor; Robert Chen, violinist

It was a very bold and unexpected choice of repertoire, and it became very clear by the end of the concert why Muti had done it. He went around and shook each musician's hand and then stood not in front of them but side by side with them as they received a standing ovation from the audience.

The message is clear. As well as making the final weeks of the season a celebration of his tenure, Muti wanted to ensure that it was also a celebration of the orchestra he clearly loves and respects so much.

There's another subtle message here too, an interesting connection between the past and the present that is definitely more than coincidence. Last week, the orchestra performed two pieces that have been played very early in the history of the CSO, and the same is true this week with the Serenade, which was then presented by music director Frederick Stock and the orchestra for the first time in December 1914.

Simply put, this Serenade is an absolute masterpiece. Serenades are usually written for weddings or other events and are meant to be light, even slightly frivolous in character. The exact origins of this seven-movement chamber piece are unclear, but what Mozart produced was a complete, substantive concert piece.

Written in 1781 or 1782, this vibrant and highly engaging work shows Mozart at the best of his imagination, with its sparkling melodies, ever-varying moods and rhythmic fervor, especially in the sixth movement Themes and Variations, which could be a cohesive work altogether. inside.

Most impressive, however, was Mozart's creative and unusual instrumentation, a sort of enlarged wind quintet including a double bass and two basset horns—a rarely seen member of the clarinet family that is similar to the alto clarinet but with a darker timbre. (They are played here with aplomb by assistant principal clarinetists John Bruce Yeh and J. Lawrie Bloom, making guest appearances (having retired from the orchestra at the end of the 2019-2020 season.).

Complementing the ensemble, seated at the front of the stage in a horseshoe configuration, are two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets and four French horns, a mix which allows for unusual and ever-changing combinations of instruments. Anchoring the ensemble are major clarinetist Stephen Williamson and principal oboist William Welter, who are at their best here. The piece's small scale allowed these 13 great musicians to be heard in a thrilling, up-close way that would normally be impossible.

The work can certainly be performed without a conductor, but it undoubtedly helps to have Muti (sitting according to the work's intimacy) to shape the overall arc and flow of the work, providing cues as necessary and overseeing the tempo and dynamics.

The rest of the program features more standard fare, but a scale of humility prevails here too, with Muti and his room-sized orchestra offering up the spirit of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. The conductor's clear desire to perform an orchestra, the soloist is the ensemble's first-rate concertmaster, Robert Chen, who showcases his breadth of technique and smooth, honed tone in what seems effortless.

Opening the program was a compact Overture to Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa's opera, “Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage),” which premiered two months after Mozart's death in 1791.