If last year’s grand global orchestra concert in town arrived with the flourish that follows the Sir Simon Rattle-led London Symphony Orchestra, last spring, this year’s symphonic concert coup finds us, to quote Led Zeppelin, going back to Chicago, and vice versa. On January 25, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), widely considered one of the nation’s — and the world’s — finest orchestras, pays a return visit to the Granada Theatre, where it played in 2017, courtesy of CAMA’s venerable “International Series.” It’s no hyperbole to call the evening a proverbial orchestral “event of the season.”
Adding significance to the innately ceremonial grandeur is the fact that famed conductor Riccardo Muti, 81, is stepping down this season from the music director post he’s held since 2010. On the touring program, CSO does a double-shot of Beethoven — refreshingly, the lesser-played Eighth Symphony and the “Coriolan Overture” — along with Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov’s 1909 work “The Enchanted Lake,” and the pictorial splendor of Modest Mussorgsky’s beloved Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrally “colorized” by Ravel.
In an interview with Muti, before his last show in town, he told me about the origins of the CSO pact, at a time when he had intended to go freelance. “When I came to Chicago,” he said, “after 38 years of absence, it was a completely different orchestra, even if there were still four or five musicians who were in the orchestra in 1973, when I conducted it.
“We made a tour in Europe, and the relationship was immediately very good, very fresh, very honest. I admired the orchestra very much, and they did, too. In fact, after the tour, I received more than 60 individual letters from musicians. They were not just ‘thank you, maestro,’ but real letters, to thank me for the beautiful tour and hoping to go on, etc. So, when I went back to Chicago for another concert, they asked me officially if I was interested in becoming their music director.
“It was strange, because a few months before, I had said no to the New York Philharmonic. Somebody thought that the choice was a choice based on quality. But that would have been too vulgar for me, to say I prefer this orchestra or that orchestra. Certainly, I love the New York Philharmonic. But I have to admit that, for me — and for many critics and music lovers in the world — Chicago Symphony is considered the best American orchestra, and one of three greatest orchestras in the world — the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic.”
The Italian-born Muti, whose many associations include a decades-long link to the Vienna Philharmonic, has been an itinerant artist, by nature. He has also crossed borders between supposedly frictional factions and nations, such as when he concertized in Iran with Italian musicians, soon after conducting the Israeli Philharmonic. “If you are in Israel,” he noted, “you cannot go to Iran, but I was in Iran. You cannot work with Iranian refugees who live in New York and cannot go back to Iran. But everything is possible in the name of music.
“This is what the governments around the world still don’t understand completely, that music and culture is one of the most important weapons that the western world — including the United States — has, and should be promoted around the world, just to underline that the United States is not only what many people perceive, as a nation of power. It is also a nation of great culture and great possibilities — democratic possibilities.”
Needless to say, what happens in Chicago, symphonically speaking, doesn’t stay in Chicago.
CAMA Presents Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Granada (ticketing.granadasb.org/17008).