So the CSO finally announced the first season to be led by its new music director, Riccardo Muti. And programming-wise the next season looks... very much like many preceding seasons. Muti never was one for experimentation in programming and he's not about to start with that here in Chicago. Most programs for the season follow the time-honored formula of: 1. overture/short work, 2. concerto-ish work, 3. big meaty symphony; without much of a thematic connection or logic to the pairings besides to say that we need some vegetables alongside the meat and potatoes for the sake of balance. That is not to say that the season is not going to be interesting. The big difference will be the return of opera in concert performance with a week of Verdi's Otello in April 2010. Muti has also always been an advocate for lesser known works of neglected masters, and there will be some worthwhile examples of that next season, too. Old friends and new faces among visiting guest conductors and soloists will add their spices and ingredients to a season that in sum will be as varied as any the CSO has presented in recent years. (Highlights below).
Speaking of soloists and guest conductors... every change of music directors often means a complete revamp of guest rosters, as soloists chose not to reappear without their favored collaborator on the podium and young guest conductors lose their most powerful advocates. Sometimes, these decisions follow less rational reasons. In Chicago, happily, change has been more fluid. The "friends-of-Danny" didn't turn their backs on the CSO when Barenboim left, and some of Haitink's protegés will be back in Muti's first season (e.g. Jaap van Zweden, who made a stunning debut with Bruckner's 5th here two years ago). There will nonetheless be a number of new faces and returns by great masters not seen here in many years.
Whatever critics and cognoscenti think about the daringness of the programming, or lack thereof, in the end the success of Muti's tenure will be measured by ticket sales, and by continuing to preserve the image of the CSO as the top orchestra in the land that continues to attract top musical talent from around the world. As survey upon survey shows, what will matter most is whether Muti's appointment generates the requisite buzz to incite enough curiosity and goodwill for the orchestra, and whether the programming offers enough familiar blockbusters to keep a critical mass of subscribers coming back each season. With a stable budget despite the current treacherous financial environment, a top roster of musicians, and continued critical acclaim, the CSO finds itself in possibly the most enviable situation among US orchestras. While having snagged the one available maestro of great stature for its new music director will certainly add to its lustre, it remains to be seen whether an older conductor, who until recently did not know what an ipod is, will be the right figure to lead the CSO at the beginning of the 21st century and reach new, younger audiences. Or perhaps he will prove everyone wrong and will demonstrate that in the end it is simply top quality music making that matters, and marketing should be better left to full-time marketing people. We shall see. We are just at the beginning of this story.
As to Muti's first season, herewith a list of personal highlights:
Free Millennium Park Concert
Muti will kick off his tenure with a free concert in Millennium Park that will feature Liszt's Les Préludes and Respighi's Pines of Rome. With a program so well geared towards showcasing the CSO's brassy goodness and Muti's strengths in musical drama it is hard to imagine that this concert will be anything but an unqualified success.
CSO Symphony Ball
Special events are often more notable as social occasions than for their musical quality, but when the date marks the first appearance of Anne-Sophie Mutter with the CSO in more than two decades (I suppose she is too expensive for a full subscription week), it is certain to be of musical importance as well, even if Mutter's recent interpretive development is not your thing. Mutter will be performing the Beethoven concerto.
Eleven Weeks of Muti
To show that he's serious, Muti will be around for eleven subscription weeks - more than a quarter of the regular season - spread around among the months of September, October, February, April, and May. Highlights include a Berlioz program featuring Symphonie fantastique and its companion piece Lélio (with Gérard Depardieu as narrator), the aforementioned concert performance of Otello, and various rarities like Strauss' Aus Italien and Hindemith's Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass. Vadim Repin returns after much too long of an absence to play the Tchaikovsky concerto under Muti's baton in February 2011.
Last Boulez Concerts before Sabbatical
The last week of November and the first week of December of this year will be your last chance to hear Pierre Boulez conduct the CSO for a year, before our beloved Conductor Emeritus takes a sabbatical to finish orchestrating the last of his Notations. Both weeks are easily the most interesting programs of the season. The first features Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and La Mèr, as well as concertmaster Robert Chen in Ligeti's violin concerto (originally programmed for this season but substituted with Tchaikovsky). The second features Berg's Lyric Suite, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and Janacek's fantastic Glagolitic Mass.
Among next season's guest artists, the following offerings strike me as particularly worthwhile: In late October, Jaap van Zweden returns to conduct Shostakovitch's 8th Symphony; the following week Michael Tilson Thomas brings an all-Copland program; Charles Dutoit returns for two weeks in March with Penderecki's Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos (CSO cellists Sharp, Olsen, and Kleijn are the soloists), Elgar's Enigma Variations and Stravinsky's Pétrouchka, while Kissin performs the Grieg concerto; Kurt Masur returns after I don't know how many eons to conduct Bruckner's 4th; and last but certainly not least: Ludovic Morlot returns with yet another fascinating program featuring CSO principal trumpet Chris Martin in not one but two concertos by Tomasi and Jolivet, bracketed by two relative rarities, Dutilleux's Symphony No.2 and Roussel's Bacchus and Ariadne Suites 1 & 2.
Haitink Closes Season
Having established a truly unique musical partnership with the orchestra, it is a relief to see that the commencement of Muti's tenure does not mean that we will not be seeing Bernard Haitink on a regular basis anymore. Indeed, the still-Principal Conductor will close the next season with two weeks of typical Haitink-fare: Brahms's 4th and Mahler's 9th. Not to be missed.