a marvelous program of late 19th-century works

Thursday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in Orchestra Hall marked two noteworthy milestones: the launch of the venerable ensemble’s 2022-2023 line-up and the beginning of Riccardo Muti’s 13th and final season as music director.

The celebrated Italian maestro, who turned 81 in July and appears fit and energetic, has not planned any festivals or complete sets of works for his final appearances. Instead, he is taking a more measured approach — leading some premieres, returning to pieces he has already performed with the CSO, and taking on other selections that clearly have special meaning to him in one way or another.

Muti & Bronfman — Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Thursday night’s program offered examples of all three as Muti presented a program that featured a set of selections all composed in the second half of the 19th century and all suffused with differing sounds of the Romantic era. Perhaps even more interesting, all three were written early in the composers’ careers, when they were in their 20s or early 30s and still defining themselves.

Garnering the most attention ahead of this set of concerts was the much-delayed U.S. premiere of “Solemn Prelude,” an 11-minute work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who had an English mother and Sierra Leone Creole father.

Although he built a considerable profile as a composer during this short life, including a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt during one of his three trips to the United States, Coleridge-Taylor was largely forgotten in the century since his death. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd and the intensified focus on diversity and inclusion in the classical world, his music is being justly rediscovered and reassessed.

It turns out, as the program notes make clear, that the CSO had a strong link to Coleridge-Taylor. Founding music director Theodore Thomas programmed an aria from the composer’s much-celebrated cantata, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” in 1900 and presented the American premiere of his Ballade in 1903.

Music Director Riccardo Muti opened his 13th year as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that included the U.S. premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Solemn Prelude” and works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Music Director Riccardo Muti opened his 13th year as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that included the U.S. premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Solemn Prelude” and works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Like the Ballade, “Solemn Prelude” was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival in Great Britain, where it debuted in 1899. The manuscript for the long-lost work was only recently rediscovered at the British Library through detective work by festival officials, and a new edition was prepared by Faber Music.

It is a pleasant, solidly constructed if not especially distinctive piece that works well as a light concert opener. Muti and the orchestra brought an appropriately relaxed, unhurried approach to this work, giving full voice to its handsome harmonies and genial melodic line.

The concert’s high point came next, an enthralling, roiling take on Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, the kind of complex, involving and memorable interpretation that has distinguished the best of the Muti era.

The concerto’s soloist, 64-year-old Yefim Bronfman, perhaps does not possess the flash or glitz of some of his peers, but he is the oak tree of the keyboard world — a towering, enduring and always dependable interpreter.

He and Muti made for a powerful pairing as the two plunged full bore into the unsettled, topsy-turvy emotions of this familiar masterwork, Brahms’ first foray into orchestral writing, with the conductor bringing plenty of punch, especially to the long introduction.

While Bronfman provided no shortage of his own musical brawn when called for, what stood out was the expressive depth of the softer, more introspective moments. Nothing was taken for granted, especially in the slow second movement, as he subtly altered the weight, timbres and dynamics of his playing, imbuing each passage with purpose and affect.

Always a first-rate accompanist, Muti was right there with Bronfman the whole time, the soloist and orchestra complementing and responding to each other for a stirringly cohesive whole that drew multiple, well-deserved ovations.

The evening ended with Pyotr llyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, a somewhat unlikely choice, because this less-frequently heard piece is from earlier in the Russian composer’s career before his later, more mature works like “Swan Lake” or Symphony No. 5.

But Muti obviously has a penchant for this slightly quirky work, which he performed with the orchestra in 2015. He seemed to delight in its folk flavors and often zippy flavor, especially the carefree, almost playful gait of the second movement.

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