IN PERFORMANCE

Jubilation, relief mingle at no-frills CSO gala

"Stay close to this orchestra," Riccardo Muti enjoined the audience at the end of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Symphony Ball gala on Saturday night, "because it represents Chicago to the world."

The CSO and its music director are about to do just that, opening the Carnegie Hall season in New York this week before embarking on their first tour to Mexico the next. So Saturday's event, the annual fundraiser of the CSO Women's Board, was the patrons' way of wishing the maestro and his band buon viaggio before they, the patrons, headed off to a post-concert supper at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park hotel.

The terse official greetings contained no mention of the strike that had silenced the CSO for 48 hours last week, or the ratification of a new labor contract that restored harmony to Orchestra Hall. The only flowers decorating the Armour Stage were the red boutonnieres worn by the orchestra members. If the trappings were more austere than usual, the predominant mood was one of relieved jubilation. Everyone was glad to have the CSO players off the picket line and back on stage, making music as only they can do.

The guest presence of Anne-Sophie Mutter, looking glamorous as ever in a strapless, emerald-green gown, evoked memories of another CSO cliffhanger. After Muti fell ill and withdrew minutes into the Symphony Ball in 2010, it was the German violinist who saved the concert, playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto essentially without a conductor.

No wonder Muti and the orchestra musicians gave her an especially grateful ovation of their own following her raptly beautiful performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor. A few years ago Mutter told the New York Times she had underestimated this familiar Romantic concerto, finding it rather insipid and lacking in sincerity. An epiphany came, she said, when she allowed herself to play it "as exuberantly and youthfully" as she had always wanted to, but had not dared to, earlier in her career.

Saturday's performance was certainly that. She took the outer movements at a breathless clip, but with no sense of scramble. She invested the slow movement with raptly beautiful phrasing that was sensitively mirrored by Muti's accompaniment. One couldn't help feeling that a somewhat slower tempo would have brought out more of the finale's elfin charm. But there was no disputing Mutter's sovereign command throughout.

Wagner is not a composer one readily associates with Muti, but in fact he conducted numerous Wagner operas during his years at Milan's La Scala (including the entire "Ring"), and the full-blooded intensity he brought to the "Flying Dutchman" Overture on Saturday attested to his Wagnerian authority.

Muti, like Fritz Reiner before him, regards Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture as music to be taken seriously, not as a piece of noisy, empty claptrap. "Tchaikovsky was never vulgar," the maestro told Saturday's crowd. His urgent and dramatic reading, complete with prerecorded cannon fire, went a long way toward proving the point.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

'33 Variations'

The theater critics have weighed in on Moises Kaufman's engrossing play, now in its Chicago premiere at Stage 773, courtesy of TimeLine Theatre. Now it's the music critics' turn.

Kaufman's stratagem is to orchestrate past and present in a theatrical fugue with multiple voices. "33 Variations" is one part mother-daughter drama, one part musicological detective story, one part exploration of the workings of the creative mind, one part meditation on how mediocre art can inspire great art, sometimes. Ludwig van Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations," the composer's final masterpiece for the piano, literally takes center stage, with the indefatigable pianist George Lepauw playing portions of the score at a Steinway baby grand plunked down in the middle of the action.

The turbulent sequence of events that found the ailing, increasingly deaf Beethoven writing multiple variations on an insipid little waltz by the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli is interwoven with a contemporary storyline. That one finds a middle-aged musicologist who's rapidly deteriorating from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) desperately trying to solve the riddle behind the "Diabellis" in the time she has left, while working out the kinks in her troubled relationship with her twentysomething daughter.

The various plot threads are tied up rather too patly by the end. Still, TimeLine's deft, splendidly acted and designed production, staged by associate artistic director Nick Bowling, keeps everything moving as precisely as Lepauw's fingers. Kaufman makes us aware of the astonishing ways in which Beethoven's fire kindles the contemporary imagination. Not to be missed.

"33 Variations" plays through Oct. 21 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont; 773-327-5252, timelinetheatre.com.

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