When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its 2023-24 season Thursday evening, it felt like déjà vu. Or a kind of pushing off the future, at least for the moment.
Even though Riccardo Muti stepped down in June after 13 years as the orchestra’s music director, there he was back on the podium, as he will be for next week’s set of concerts as well, as though nothing had changed.
But, of course, things have changed. The CSO is continuing its search for Muti’s replacement with no announced timeline for its completion, and nearly 30 guest conductors, all or some possible music-director candidates, will lead the ensemble this season.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 and Sept. 26
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
For now, though, Muti, who received the title of music director emeritus for life just before the end of his tenure, is providing some much-needed and welcome artistic continuity and stability during this uncertain time.
Looking fit and rested after turning 82 in July, Muti essentially just picked up where he left off. The audience knew what to expect Thursday evening, and he delivered the same kind of incisive, involving interpretations that marked so much of his music directorship.
The CSO forewent a guest artist for this program, choosing to make this simply a union of conductor and orchestra revisiting three works they have performed together before, including two of the symphonic world’s most enduring masterpieces. And that decision paid off in spades.
The concert’s centerpiece was the Suite from “The Firebird,” the 1909-10 ballet that set Igor Stravinsky on the road to being perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century. While still rooted to the Romantic era, it nonetheless offered a taste of the avant-garde with its insistent rhythms and raw energy.
As he does so well, Muti gave rich voice to that dichotomy and maximized the expressive power of the work’s other inherent contrasts. His muscular, sharp-edged attack on the third movement, titled “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei,” provided an electrifying and thrilling jolt after the careful restraint and atmospheric feel of the first two movements.
Though the contrasts are less dramatic, much the same could be said of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73. Muti and the orchestra basked in the work’s alluring melodies, joyous spirit and voluptuous harmonies, delivering consistently beautiful, captivating playing.
For the evening’s opener, Muti returned to a little-known piece that he clearly fancies — “The Enchanted Lake,” Op. 62, by Anatoly Liadov. The Russian composer was famously commissioned to write “The Firebird” before apparently squandering the opportunity to the benefit of Stravinsky.
Perhaps simply because it was a second hearing, this quiet, intimate and in its way impressionistic piece left more of an impact than it did in 2021, with Muti and the orchestra delivering a delicately evocative and affecting performance.
One of Muti’s major accomplishments was enhancing the already fine sound of the orchestra’s strings, instilling more of a lyrical quality that was abundantly in evidence all evening, especially in the long first movement of the Brahms symphony.
The concert also marked the arrival of six musicians, whose appointments were announced earlier this month. Most prominent is principal French hornist Mark Almond, an English player who left a mostly positive impression in his first outing.
Many other musicians offered strong individual performances including principal oboist William Welter, principal cellist John Sharp, and Kelly Estes Karamanov, a fine keyboardist who provided nuanced contributions on piano and celeste.
A new era will soon dawn at the CSO. But at least for now, with Muti back on the podium, the present is more of the past. And that proved to be a good thing Thursday evening.