In fact, the upbeat mood that prevailed at the music director's first concert with the orchestra since March, heard Thursday night at Symphony Center, related, first and foremost, to the typically high quality of the performances he drew from his musicians in a program of Schubert and Mozart.
But the mood also was buoyed by the stunning financial news announced earlier in the day by the CSO's parent body, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
A $17 million grant from the Zell Family Foundation, the largest in the orchestra's history, will endow the music director's position, not only through the remaining seasons of Muti's tenure (which is scheduled to end in 2019-2020) but in perpetuity.
That grant, along with a $15 million commitment from the Negaunee Foundation, which is earmarked for the CSO's Institute for Learning, Access and Training (henceforth to be known as the Negaunee Music Institute at the CSO) and was announced at the same time, should provide crucial impetus to the board's long-range strategic planning process, Vision 2020, details of which have yet to be made public.
The grants also represent the best going-away present any symphony CEO could ever want – a triumphant capstone to Deborah Rutter's remarkable 11-year legacy as association president, as she prepares to leave her post at the close of the CSO's fiscal year June 30 to assume a similar post at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in September.
You might have imagined the big financial news would steal Muti and the orchestra's musical thunder, but such was not the case.
The maestro was returning to Chicago on the heels of leading performances of Verdi's "Nabucco" with the Rome Opera on tour in Tokyo in late May and June. Next week, when he wraps up the CSO's Orchestra Hall season, he also will receive an honorary degree at Northwestern University's commencement ceremony and deliver the main commencement address.
But on Thursday his focus was squarely on two early Schubert symphonies, Nos. 1 and 6, and Mozart's Bassoon Concerto, classical repertory composed by Austrian adolescents who happened to be musical geniuses.
The orchestra soon will lose another admired figure, principal bassoon David McGill, who has announced he will step down from his post, effective in August, to accept a fulltime teaching position at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music.
McGill has contributed much to the orchestra in general, its splendid woodwind choir in particular, during his 17 years with the CSO, and the elegant reading of the Mozart concerto he offered as his solo valedictory on Thursday made clear that whoever succeeds him will have very large shoes to fill.
He coaxed a myriad of colors and inflections from his instrument, deftly articulating melodic leaps and rapid runs without sacrificing the mellow beauty and consistency of tone that are a hallmark of his playing. What's more, he supplied his own stylish cadenzas, one for each of the three movements. Bassoon playing doesn't get any better than this.
It was matched by the gracious accompaniment Muti drew from a chamber-sized CSO. McGill's performance drew air-kisses from the maestro, along with grateful applause and cheers from the soloist's colleagues and the audience.
Muti's bookending the Mozart concerto with the two Schubert works called attention to the Mozartean influences in these youthful, but by no means musically inconsequential, symphonies, particularly the First Symphony (D major), which the orchestra had not played since 1982.
Both readings were consistent in their refinements with the previous performances in Muti's Schubert cycle here. Slow movements were marked by singing lines and a suavity of phrasing that owed as much to the maestro's 44-year association with the Vienna Philharmonic as to his southern Italian sensibility. Fast movements moved with brisk forward elan, rhythms danced, instrumental details came vividly to the fore. The unbuttoned finale to the First Symphony even brought some new Muti dance steps on the podium.
Above all, Muti had his musicians addressing this music with a cultivated Schubert style one doesn't often hear from America orchestras.
Much of that could be heard in the smooth interplay of the strings and the woodwinds, among whose principal players one was pleased to hear Stephen Williamson, still officially on leave from the CSO but playing first clarinet these two Muti weeks before returning to the ranks for good this fall.
Thursday night found the first-chair woodwinds – flutist Mathieu Dufour, oboist Eugene Izotov, bassoonist William Buchman and Williamson — speaking fluent Schubert. Take that, Vienna Phil.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$246; 312-294-3000, cso.org.