CSO, Riccardo Muti simply superb at Carnegie Hall with familiar, rare works
– by Nancy Malitz | November 17, 2019
NEW YORK — For classical music lovers in the Big Apple, the holiday feast has come early. Not only did they have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti onstage at Carnegie Hall, but the National Symphony also is in town, and the Boston Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, all with hearty musical fare in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic is at home in its own hall, partying in full swing.
The CSO made an outstanding impression in this abundant swirl, with a pair of weekend programs Friday and Saturday that had been previously heard in Chicago. The first was the electrifying showpiece for the multi-Grammy award winner Joyce DiDonato, a leading star among stars of the opera stage, who had been invited by Carnegie Hall to put together a season of specialties under a banner called “Perspectives.” The diva chose to launch her “Perspectives” project, with the Chicagoans, in a reprise of Berlioz’s spine-chilling take on Cleopatra’s death by snake-bite. The second CSO concert was an all-Prokofiev program of music originally intended for the stage, including excerpts from his ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”
Ripped from the headlines of 30 B.C., Berlioz’s “The Death of Cleopatra” catches the queen at the moment she realizes the full extent of her disgrace. Her charms had worked on previous Roman ruler Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, each of whom had become lovers, but this time she is to be a slave. Her disintegration comes with raw cries from the heart in the form of a bold and entirely unconventional operatic scene for one.
The work seems custom-made for Muti as well — a non-stop thriller that ends with pulverizing throbs from the orchestra as the queen first succumbs to an asp’s deadly bite, then endures a grinding orchestral terrain of desperation, with hearbeats gasping and sporadic, until there is none. Berlioz’s work is nothing less than Shakespearian in ambition, and the utter stillness in Carnegie Hall put one in mind of what happens toward the end of a really great performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
A crowd of boosters from Chicago, who attended as a group, cannot have missed the irony that this program was the one that brought an end to the CSO strike last May, but they were also able to witness the orchestra in superb current shape. Disruptive as those months were, the CSO’s rebuilding under Muti has since continued, and the orchestra has not sounded better in recent memory. This was the ensemble’s first trip here with three new principals: oboe William Welter, French horn David Cooper and trumpet Esteban Batallán.
Thus Muti’s re-population of key positions, which had come about through natural turnover, is all but complete. The brass principals were performing in Carnegie Hall for the first time ever; the brass in general were in the spotlight for Resphighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which culminates in a grand crescendo evoking the arrival from a distance of Rome’s triumphal army along the Appian Way. A sure-fire finale, its conclusion with clarion calls from brass on both sides of the balcony and on the stage brought the crowd to its feet.
Muti’s Rome-themed concert began with an almost never-performed work — Bizet’s “Roma,” which was first done by the Chicago Symphony and its founder Theodore Thomas in Chicago in 1894, and for the first time at Carnegie Hall in 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. One thinks of it from this distance of time as a light piece, but Muti found what was undeniably lovely in it. This “Roma” was the Rome of a French composer charmed by the country he was visiting. And there was little doubt that in the wild tarantella at the end, the southern-Italian maestro drew from a spirit native to his blood.
Likewise, Muti’s all-Prokofiev concert on Nov. 16 included a relative rarity — the Symphony No. 3, composed in 1928 with material rescued from his opera “The Fiery Angel.” The opera had suffered a brutal start when a sample of it was poorly received in Paris in 1927, and worse, when a full production was killed outright before a scheduled opening at the Berlin Opera. But the Russian composer believed strongly in its ideas and re-worked some of them into his Third Symphony, which he argued was one of his best compositions.
Prokofiev’s symphony is among his most brash and most rhythmically insistent works overall, with an abundance of the bizarre and grotesque. But there are also gorgeous breaks in the middle movements in which melodic bits turn serenely in and over on themselves. They seem to share some fundamental DNA with the love music in “Romeo and Juliet,” which Prokofiev would be working on into the late 1930s.
Certainly giving the two works together, as Muti offered them so persuasively, made the case for a composer who was still fixated on material that could be mined for more riches. And in its moments of extreme delicacy, with diaphanous strings and otherworldly woodwind blends, the Third Symphony evoked the same quiet urgency of those young lovers who were packing everything into a lifetime that would end forever at daybreak.
Nancy Malitz, Chicago Sun-Times, November 17, 2019
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