Beethoven: Symphony No. 7/Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 & Beethoven: Coriolan Overture & Symphony No. 8/Liadov: The Enchanted Lake; Mussorgsky (Orch. Ravel): Pictures from an Exhibition | The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, conductor. February 1 & 2, 2023, Koerner Hall.
One gauge of a healthy music scene is the presence of visiting orchestras, a dossier in which Toronto lately has been deficient, and not just because of COVID. Kudos to the Royal Conservatory of Music for restoring our sense of civic pride and filling our ears with the glorious sounds of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
There were two concerts this week in Koerner Hall, both led by longtime CSO music director Riccardo Muti and both comprising Beethoven and Russian music, current events be damned. The only reservation I can imagine involves a contorted reflection on whether there can be too much of a good thing.
Chicago, city of the big shoulders, is known symphonically for muscular clarity and strong primary colours. We got a good portion of both on Wednesday in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Staccato chords in the introduction were startling in their impact, to say nothing of the lucidity of the melodic lines they interrupted. What a fine thing it was to be reminded of how brilliantly the composer manages this contrast.
All sections spoke firmly. Seldom has a flute sounded so focused. Fugal writing was exact in the Allegretto, velocity remarkable in the Presto. The celebrated finale was entirely manic and completely under control. Precisely because the sound was so impeccably balanced, I felt an urge to listen closely to elements of the mix generally taken to be subsidiary. If there are better lower strings in the world, I have not heard them lately.
We can pretty much put ditto marks over the performance of the Eighth on Thursday, strong and emphatic, despite the common perception of this symphony as a return to 18th-century values. Muti certainly had other ideas in the development section of the first movement. He lightened up appropriately in the Allegretto scherzando (according to some, a representation of the then-newly invented metronome). Horns and clarinet deserved the bows they took for their convivial work over nimble cellos in the Tempo di menuetto third movement. All the complexities of the finale were made clear.
A matchlessly authoritative figure on the podium, Muti (at 81) deployed a full repertoire of subtle gestures to meet his needs. Interesting to see him lift his right elbow sharply to signal stresses. One had the sense of a complete symbiosis with the orchestra.
There was other Beethoven on offer. Thursday began with a Coriolan Overture whose massive overall conception (punctuated by spot-on timpani) made the hushed pianissimo close seem all the more shocking.
The after-intermission item on Wednesday was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, a work that paradoxically mixes good humour with a heavy tread. Ninety-three players made quite a sound in the thickly-scored first movement. If the red line in lively Koerner Hall was approached, it was never transgressed. The pulsing scherzo successfully implanted an earworm that is still with me. Such vitality! Best, however, was the finale, where Prokofiev tempers his energy with gentle irony (and the orchestra did likewise).
This visit was not all about muscle. The second half on Thursday began with Anatoly Liadov’s enduring hit, The Enchanted Lake. Muti used his left hand for this shimmering music. Then came Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the inevitable Ravel orchestration.
As a sequence of solos — radiant trumpet, lyrical tuba and a soft saxophone free of all traces of jazzy aggression — the performance could not be faulted, and the concerted Chicago brass in The Great Gate of Kiev proved equal to their reputation. Tempos, however, were on the slow side. Something in processional freedom (the music represents a promenade from painting to painting) was missing. Muti is a conductor who keeps the score in front of him all times.
There was a great deal to applaud, and the sellout crowds did so, mostly on their feet and with near-deafening hoots and bravos. They were rewarded with heartfelt operatic encores, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (Wednesday) and its counterpart from Giordano’s Fedora (Thursday). Both received amusing spoken introductions by the conductor, who, for all his authority, appears to be a nice guy.
It should be noted that the audience was made substantially of middle-aged-or-better patrons — understandably, as prices were high. To some degree this was a matter of sheer mathematics. Koerner Hall (capacity 1,065 with the stage extension) seats considerably fewer listeners than you-know-where.
I suspect that all felt they got good value and rejoiced to hear RCM performing arts director Mervon Mehta announce from the stage that these were the inaugural concerts of an International Orchestra Series.
The 2023-24 events will be announced shortly. Sounds good to me.
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