Riccardo Muti, CSO triumph with Tchaikovsky’s epic ‘Manfred’ Symphony

– Kyle MacMillan | February 24, 2023

Conductor Riccardo Muti returned to Orchestra Hall Thursday evening for his first concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra there since leading the orchestra on a Jan. 21-Feb. 3 tour to the western United States and Toronto, Ontario

With Muti’s departure from his post as Zell Music Director at the end of June coming ever closer, each of his appearances with the orchestra seems to carry a bit of added meaning and emotion, and it certainly felt that way Thursday.

For this program, which will be repeated through Saturday in Orchestra Hall and once in Kansas City, Mo., Muti chose two 19th-century works that are unquestioned staples of the repertory yet are played less frequently than other more familiar compositions in that category.

The evening’s show stopper was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s nearly hourlong Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, a programmatic 1885 blockbuster based on a supernatural poem by Lord Byron about a guilt-ridden nobleman who wanders the Alps and faces down a series of seven spirits.

This massive, almost overblown work, which calls for augmented musical forces, including pipe organ in the fourth movement, is the absolute apogee of 19th-century Romanticism at its most grandiose.

As such, it is not to every taste, but Muti, who previously programmed the symphony in 2015, clearly revels in this tumultuous, psychological work with its opulent melodies and intersecting, overlapping and contradictory emotions.

With the conductor sometimes asking for even more with an upraised left fist, he and the CSO delivered an all-out, no-holds-barred, leave-everything-on-the-field performance that was quite simply thrilling, and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Setting the tone for all that was to come was the CSO’s all-encompassing take on the sweeping first movement, with its surging and ebbing cross-currents of chorale-like woodwinds, brass blasts, bass- drum rolls, voluptuous strings and lilting harps.

The danger with such grand gestures and massive muscularity, of course, is that the performance might devolve into excess and even caricature. But Muti had the discipline and awareness to walk right up to that line but not cross it.

The Manfred Symphony is a showpiece for musicians across the orchestra, and the CSO players made the most of their moments in the spotlight. Among them: the indispensable barrel tones of guest bass clarinetist Pavel Vinnitsky, the big, dramatic combinations of principal timpanist David Herbert and the expressive solos of principal French hornist David Cooper.

Offering a wonderful counter-balance to the amplitude of the Manfred Symphony was the first-half offering — Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, a much more modest and understated yet still radiant expression of the Romantic spirit.

This performance featured the wonderful German violinist Julia Fischer, making her first appearance with the CSO since 2016, a return that was long overdue. This first-rate soloist’s playing is marked by a refined vibrancy and fetchingly burnished, full-voiced tone.

Muti and Fischer seemed completely in sync in this work, bringing nuanced dynamics and a restraint, at times even a kind of gentleness to the opening movement, perfectly capturing Schumann’s tempo marking — “In powerful motion, but not too fast.”

The spellbinding, slow second movement had a lovely intimate, chamber-music feel, with Fischer nicely blending with the orchestra’s strings and adding poignant solo work of her own. The third movement allowed room for some showy flourishes, which she dashed off with aplomb, but it, too, stayed within the contained yet still ebullient feel of the rest of the work.

This winning performance made it hard to believe that Schumann’s wife Clara and close friend and violinist Joseph Joachim suppressed the concerto after his 1856 death, concerned that mental illness had tainted the composer’s last, large-scale completed piece. Amazingly, the CSO didn’t first perform it until 1996.

After the orchestra’s three performances of these two works this weekend in Orchestra Hall, it will repeat the lineup Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Then, Muti and the CSO travel to Florida for four concerts with other programs. Muti will next appear in Chicago with the orchestra May 11-13 and May 16.

Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times, February 24, 2023


Chicago Symphony Orchestra paints the perfect musical picture at Steinmetz | Review

– Matthew J. Palm | March 1, 2023

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra showed why Steinmetz Hall is a game changer for the Orlando arts scene with a concert Tuesday night that reached heights so high only audience misbehavior could bring us back down to earth.

The 132-year-old orchestra was conducted by its acclaimed music director, Riccardo Muti, who demonstrated why he is one of the pre-eminent conductors of our times. His style isn’t flashy; at times, it’s downright spare — but, oh, he can say so much with a simple jab of the baton or gentle arc of the hand.

Things got off to a rousing start with Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, with its thrilling pauses and dramatic accents leading to the creamy melody. The musicians displayed superb dynamic control, a hallmark of the whole evening.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 followed, with Muti launching into the first movement even before the Coriolan applause had died down. The strings brought out the work’s vitality and color, especially as they glided through the “tempo di menuetto.”

Unfortunately, Orlando didn’t put its best foot forward for the out-of-town guests. Just as the final movement of the 8th Symphony was about to start, a phone erupted with what seemed to be perhaps a vibration or buzzing — sound that traveled around the hall. Some patrons shouted, some tittered; pointed words from Muti on stage made it clear the maestro was not amused.

After what seemed an eternity, the noise subsided and the musicians launched into the work’s conclusion.

It was played with the same flair as the previous movements, but the shimmering spell had been broken; once that sensation is interrupted, it is very hard — if not impossible — to recover.

Luckily, the program’s second half did not have any repeat incidents, and by concert’s end it seemed as if all might be forgiven — thanks to Muti’s appreciation for Steinmetz Hall, just 13 months old.

He pointed out he has seen the best concert venues around the world and praised the hall as “really wonderful.” When an audience member shouted “Bravo!” in response, Muti joked: “I didn’t make it!”

He had praise for the backstage area, too, saying its comfort elevated the facility from a concert hall to an opera house — a segue that led neatly into the symphony’s beautiful encore, the intermezzo from Umberto Giordano’s opera Fedora, which served as a wrapped-in-warmth lullaby to send the audience home.

But that was just the cherry on top after a concert full of drama and color.

The second half opened with Anatoly Liadov’s atmospheric The Enchanted Lake, where the strings provided the water’s gentle ripples and woodwinds manifested the undercurrents in delightfully delicate playing.

Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition — titled in an updated translation from the Russian of what was previously known as Pictures at an Exhibition — was all you could wish for.

From the clear opening tones of the trumpet (beautiful brass intonation throughout) to the pleasing peeping and piping of the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, from the sprightly musical bustle of the Limoges “Market Place” to the somber low tones of the “Catacombs,” each note and phrase landed with gorgeous intention.

And knowing the current situation in Ukraine, “The Great Gate of Kiev” rang with a particular poignancy under its magnificence. A memorable journey, indeed.

The concert concluded the inaugural — and hugely successful — Great American Orchestra Series at the arts center. Plans already are afoot to stage a Great International Orchestra Series in the 2023-24 season.

Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel, March 1, 2023


Magnificent Manfred Symphony makes for a rousing Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in Kansas City.

– Libby Hanssen | March 1, 2023

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned to Kansas City for an expansive program of rarely-heard works from two household names of the 19th century.

Riccardo Muti, now in his last season as CSO’s music director of the CSO, conducted Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1853, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1885 Manfred Symphony.

This was the orchestra’s third appearance with the Harriman-Jewell Series, with an eager, near sell-out crowd at Helzberg Hall, part of CSO’s North American tour.

Though it is Muti’s last season as music director of CSO, he’ll continue to collaborate with the organization in the coming years. Even in his 80s, he presented an impressive figure on the podium.

Violinist Julia Fischer joined CSO for Schumann’s devilishly difficult concerto, a 30-minute heavy lift for the soloist. For 80 years after Schumann’s death, this piece went unheard. It’s a late work of Schumann’s, written shortly before he attempted suicide. To his wife Clara and their close friends, it seemed to indicate in its content a decline in his mental health, so they prohibited its performance for 100 years. Resurrected in 1937, the concerto is vibrant, yet subtle.

The orchestra gave it a clean reading, attune to Fischer, and with lots of smiling between conductor and front line of principal strings. The sound was rich and full (considering they don’t rehearse in the hall together—though they’d played it the three previous nights in Chicago—it was a textbook example of across the stage listening), the final chord of the first movement approached with such warmth.

Overzealous audience members started clapping following the cadence, marring the energy of the moment.

The second movement was like a prayer, with a simple, graceful duet between Fischer and principal cellist John Sharp. The twining lines took a slight turn toward mournful, before driving into the final movement, a sparkling work with punctuations from the winds and shining moments in the strings. At its conclusion, Fischer received four curtain calls.

Fischer’s fiery approach to the part had a certain deal-with-the-devil energy, so perhaps it was no surprise she chose an energetic Niccolò Paganini work for her encore: Caprice No. 13 (nicknamed Devil’s Laughter).

Again, it displayed her stunning capabilities. Again, the performance was hampered by out of place applause, interrupting the final return of the theme. Fischer, with gracious good humor, glanced at concertmaster Robert Chen as she waited for the ruckus to die down before completing the number (to, of course, more applause).

But then it was on to Tchaikovsky after intermission. Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 is based on Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, though it took some convincing for Tchaikovsky to agree to use that as the basis for his work. And while not as familiar as some of his other large works, it was an exuberant experience. The work is massive: in length, in strength, and in volume.

Tchaikovsky was not afraid to push the genre to its edges and Muti certainly isn’t either. That was perhaps the loudest performance from acoustic instruments I’ve ever heard, as solid as though you could put your hand up against the sound itself.

With a curt nod, Muti gestured to the bassoons, whose opening line set the tone for the experience: unified, organ-like richness. The stages of Manfred’s journey, the rise and fall of his emotional state, are displayed through tender, succulent string playing, blistering, bells-up brass, a resounding passage from bass clarinet, and thunderous timpani and bass drum.

At the cut off, Muti smote the first stutter of incipient ovation with an uncompromising flick of his palm, controlling the audience members’ outburst as effectively as he led the orchestra. Throughout, his expressive gestures shifted from broad to specific, pointing to a soloist, punching the air, leaning close to the violins, harnessing the energy, beating time only in the strictest of necessity.

Smiles glimmered during the second movement, whether just the sweet energy of the melodies or an inside joke remembered. The winds here did incredible work, cascades of notes that surged and gushed through the movement, tinseled with precise triangle. All of this trickled into pristine harp plucks and violin pizzicato, the last few precious shimmers flourished by the concertmaster.

In the pastoral third movement, the music conjured the austerity of the mountains and the fragile beauty of the life that clings to them, with delicate moments laced through.

An emphatic Allegro con fuoco concluded Manfred’s soul torment, a nevertheless jubilant ride right up to the edge of the extreme. Tchaikovsky brought each voice in the orchestra to its pinnacle and the orchestra’s reading embraced this in the rambunctious fugue and its aftermath. So many vigorous voices, from harp to flute to trumpet to organ, given clarity and emphasis, resolved to the work’s lastt one with a breathless concentration of energies.

This was perhaps Muti’s last Kansas City appearance. Heading toward semi-retirement and certainly fewer North American appearances, it was perhaps a perfect send-off. On the other hand, hearing Chicago in this setting only furthered the craving to hear more. Hopefully, subsequent performances will include work by CSO Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, who Kansas City audiences could benefit from knowing better.

Libby Hanssen, KC Studio Magazine, March 1, 2023

Watch the photos:

Chicago, February 23

Kansas City (MO), February 26

Orlando (FL), February 28 – rehearsals and concert 

Sarasota (FL), March 1

Naples (FL), March 2

© Nuccio DiNuzzo Photography

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