Bucking the trend towards ever-younger music directors (see the LA Phil and the Philadelphia Orchestra), some may have considered the Chicago Symphony's choice of former Philly and La Scala maestro Riccardo Muti as their 10th music director an unnecessarily-conservative one. And, no doubt there's been a fair amount of tongue-clucking going on in and around Symphony Center, with the multiple missed concerts Muti has dealt subscribers this season due to health issues.
But, as if to silence his detractors, Muti brought the CSO to Carnegie Hall this weekend for three concerts, looking as virile and vigorous as ever. (Tony Tommasini, in his review of Friday night's performance of Verdi's Otello, cheekily described him as appearing "calm, fit, and self-satisfied.")
When Muti took the stage for Sunday's matinee performance, the crowd literally erupted in cheers, his larger-than-life reputation long preceding him. That's what you get when you go out and nab a big-name conductor: built-in aura. Cred, however dearly it may cost, counts.
Yesterday's program was a curious mix of saccharine warhorses that didn't seem very promising on paper. But, Muti - ever the exacting maestro - made a convincing argument for each. Cherubini's Overture in G Major was fluid and graceful, straddling the seemingly canyon-like divide between Mozart and Beethoven. Muti took his sweet time with Liszt's Les Preludes, drawing out every morsel of nuance for maximum grandeur. Never has the connection between Liszt and his future son-in-law, Wagner, sounded so clear.
And then, there was Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Maybe it was because I was sitting in the seventh row, but the cymbal crashes and timpani were overpowering. The 3rd movement was sad and beautiful, almost Mahleresque. (Shostakovich claimed he wrote it in 3 days, which is almost impossible to believe.) Which set up perfectly the shock-and-awe Finale, which felt almost impossibly loud. As you might imagine, the house erupted in a frenzied standing ovation that went on for several curtain calls.
For all the trouble besetting American orchestras these days, Muti and the Chicagoans offered a powerful reminder of precisely why we need these institutions. In a word: orchestras are living, breathing works of art - 120 passionate humans pouring every last ounce of heart and soul into their instruments to create something far greater than themselves.
Make that 121.
More pics on Flickr.