CHICAGO — On June 19, a few hours before the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins in overtime, 6-5, tying the Stanley Cup Finals at two games apiece, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released a video: a performance of The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” the song played in Chicago’s United Center after every home goal, with the orchestra’s music director, Riccardo Muti, on the podium, resplendent in a Blackhawks jersey.
Maybe the CSO can’t take full credit for what turned out to be the turning point of the finals, but it was at least a sign of success for the orchestra’s leadership transition.
As the Boston Symphony Orchestra heads into its first season with its next music director, Andris Nelsons, under contract, it’s worth looking west for clues to what the future might hold. Three seasons ago, the CSO was very much where the BSO is now: coming out of a lengthy leadership limbo and hoping for a sense of direction. Chicago went in a very different direction than Boston; where Nelsons is young (34), Muti is as seasoned a veteran (71) as they come. But the crossroads are the same.
Already, the BSO was taking pages from the CSO-Muti playbook, introducing Nelsons to Boston on June 25 with full municipal trappings: an appearance at Faneuil Hall, a first pitch at Fenway Park, a mayoral proclamation. Muti, too, has plied that sort of public presence, in ways both playful (his first-pitch appearance came at Wrigley Field) and substantial, including a number of free concerts and outreach appearances — the sort of community visibility Nelsons was already talking about at Tuesday’s Symphony Hall Q&A.
Muti has a flair for channeling civic pride. When The New York Times published a book review disparaging Chicago, he sprang to the city’s defense with a letter to the editor. It’s the sort of thing that has made it easy for Chicagoans to adopt him as one of their own; the BSO and Nelsons are clearly aiming for a similar effect.
If it happens, it will be, as with Muti, in spite of a limited presence. Modern maestri commute. The contract Nelsons signed specifies 12 weeks of concerts per season starting in 2015, while Muti is obligated to spend a minimum of only 10 weeks in Chicago every year. That leaves a lot of schedule to fill up.
The CSO’s solution has been to structure the rest of the season around various distinct identities. New music, for instance, is concentrated in its own series, MusicNOW, with its own conductor, Cliff Colnot, hosted by the CSO’s two composers-in-residence, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. Guest conductors often present, in essence, small residencies of their own; pops and film-music concerts are sprinkled throughout the season. An educational series called “Beyond the Score” expands program notes into their own multimedia concerts. The organization is a hub for several related but discrete brands.
The branding extends to CSO programming, which has increasingly been packaged into mini-festivals stretched across the season. Next season sees a Verdi bicentennial series, a cycle of Schubert symphonies, both conducted by Muti, plus a four-concert series devoted to Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev called “Truth to Power” (conducted by Jaap van Zweden).
Sometimes the groupings have seemed to be marketing cover for the kind of standard repertoire the orchestra — most orchestras — would be programming anyway. But sometimes, as with James Levine’s Beethoven/Schoenberg series with the BSO some years back, the themes have elevated the programming beyond checking off canonic boxes.
The CSO’s June 21 concert, on the final weekend of the season, featuring both the orchestra and the CSO Chorus, presented a good example of both the marketing and Muti’s ability to wring something unusual out of it. The centerpiece was Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces,” a preview of next year’s Verdi festivities, and a grand-slam advertising hook: “Muti Conducts Verdi” is about as sure a thing as you can get.
But the “Four Sacred Pieces” are idiosyncratic, and the program ended up honoring that. First was Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus,” which Muti rendered as a liminal haze, almost like one of Verdi’s offstage choruses, in distant counterpoint to the drama. Vivaldi’s “Magnificat,” new to the CSO, was performed with a kind of ruthless moderation, never rising above a precise simmer. It was also evidence that the core orchestra brand remains first among equals; rather than adjusting the CSO to sound like Vivaldi, Vivaldi was adjusted to sound like the CSO.
The first half seemed to set a baseline for Verdi’s extensions of the traditions; and, sure enough, the “Four Sacred Pieces” came off as more daring in their evocation of the sacred, be it hushed, avant-garde mystery (the unaccompanied “Ave Maria” and “Laudi alla Vergine Maria”) or big-budget, theatrical ritual (the thoroughly operatic dimensions of the “Stabat Mater” and the “Te Deum”).
Muti, as might be expected, was in grand form — not many conductors have such communion with Verdi’s music — as was the orchestra and chorus, who combined precision (Muti’s short-leash control on full display) with some seriously sumptuous style. But the concert also made room for the unexpected (no small feat for a Mozart-Vivaldi-Verdi program), the unorthodox interpretations on the first half priming Verdi’s unorthodox rhetoric on the second.
Orchestras like the CSO and BSO are forever seeking balances between comfort and novelty, appeal and depth, celebrity and substance, local and global. The CSO hasn’t always gotten the balance right; no orchestra has. But, for this concert, at least, they threaded those needles with satisfying dexterity.
Whether the BSO and its new director will adopt some of the CSO’s model — the high-profile maestro combined with a multivalent organization, high-concept marketing given enough artistic wherewithal to overdeliver — remains to be seen. There are signs that it’s working in Chicago, though. Maybe someone should fit Andris Nelsons for a Bruins jersey.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.