I'm a little late to the game, so by now you will have read in all the usual places that Riccardo Muti arrived, saw, conquered, and departed prematurely with "extreme gastric distress". In the meantime, we have of course found out more details about the matter and Muti seems well on his way towards full recovery and a return to the CSO podium in February. This all makes the speculation indulged in by the local pseudo-music critic from the city's leading conservative fishwrap manufacturer seem all that more dishonest and in poor taste. Some people deserve their employers. Anyway... getting back to music...
I missed Muti's inaugural free concert in Millennium Park, as well as the Mozart-Haydn program. However, I did make it to the Friday performance of Muti's first regular subscription program, billed as the "Berlioz Spectacular". When the choice of Muti as the next CSO music director was announced, I expressed here on this blog certain reservations, which at the time I did not further elaborate. I have heard Muti conduct many times during the time that I lived in New York, with a variety of ensembles, including the Vienna and New York Philharmonics. As an avid record collector, I of course also listened to most of his discography from Philadelphia, London and elsewhere. What I heard at Symphony Center here in Chicago in that last week of September fully confirmed my prior impressions of both his qualities and shortcomings as a conductor and therefore of my queasiness over his choice as the new MD.
Aside from certain repertoire that Muti evidently cares about a great deal (Verdi and Tchaikovsky, in particular), I have often felt about most Muti performances that I was hearing utmost musical elegance and technical perfection and a great, natural dramatic arc, but for no particular artistic purpose. There is a certain one-size-fits-all orchestral sound with Muti (perhaps inspired by Karajan, whom he clearly reveres), that doesn't care whether Berlioz or Beethoven or Scriabin is on the menu. The orchestra sounds the same whatever the composer. This was especially evident in Muti's first week at the CSO, and I find it is lethal for Berlioz in general and Symphonie fantastique in particular.
Symphonie fantastique is a unique piece in the symphonic repertoire. Although inspired by the Eroica, its young composer departed very far from Beethoven's model, especially in terms of orchestration, and charted new territory of his own. What Berlioz did here was stands out among the work of his contemporaries and its influence did not catch on until much later. But this uniqueness was not in evidence in Muti's interpretation - the orchestral sound was entirely too monochromatic to convey the peculiarities of Berlioz's unparalleled instrumentation, his orchestral effects, or the special atmosphere evoked by the best performances of this work. The whole interpretation seemed like he was taking one of the most audacious and most weirdly orchestrated pieces and making it sound like a worship service for any other canonical romantic repertoire piece, devoid of revolutionary edge, the element of surprise, or idiosyncrasy. It is almost as if there was some strange reluctance of Muti's to step outside of himself and step into the character of the music at any given moment. He also values beautiful sound too much way to allow his band to produce any ugly sounds, but this music demands ugliness and grotesqueness at times. So this is perhaps what you get when someone, who - by his own words - has "nothing left to prove" in his musical career, is conducting the music of a 27-year-old, who still had everything to prove. The result is to me just musically uninteresting and generic in a way, despite the perfection of the execution.
And perfect it was, indeed. Whatever my criticisms above, there is absolutely no denying that the CSO musicians think very highly of Muti and that he in turn inspires them to new heights. Everyone, including customarily uninvolved string backbenchers and a recently wobbly principal horn, delivered at the absolute height of his or her musical prowess. I have never heard this orchestra play with this much dedication and involvement outside of tour performances abroad (or perhaps Barenboim's farewell). But when the conductor doesn't care to clarify textures and expose unique Berliozian instrumental combinations, when everything is played with the same beautiful, hi-gloss sheen - whether the work's hero is overjoyed, dancing with his beloved or about to be executed - then much of the musicians' hard work is artistically for naught. The woodwinds were often somewhat covered up by unnecessarily lush strings, and the last two movements simply lacked any hallucinatory element, any aspect of the bizarre, or any atmosphere of fear, death, or doom. It was more dream than nightmare. As electrified as the hall was with Muti, I would rather hear a more thoughtful and atmospheric interpretation like what Fabio Luisi did here two seasons ago - as resistant as some in the orchestra may have been to follow him as wholeheartedly as they followed Muti.
Now, at the same time as Muti's inaugural program exhibited some of his interpretive blandness in mainstream repertoire, it also exhibited some of his greatest qualities, one of which is his utter and unshakable conviction that forgotten and neglected works of music must be performed and must be given performances of the highest caliber. Maybe he is too aware in core repertoire that he is battling the ghosts of performances past, but Muti seems to open up and find an emotional energy in obscure works that he often lacks the core repertoire. All of this was in ample evidence in the second half of the program, which featured Berlioz's extremely rarely performed "sequel" to Symphonie fantastique, Lélio, ou la retour à la vie. Performances and recordings of the latter (in its complete form) are even more rare than performances and recordings of the former are ubiquitous, so having the opportunity of hearing it live and performed at such level of refinement, with meticulous observance of the composer's staging instructions, was a rare treat indeed. As requested by Berlioz, the orchestra, chorus and singers were performing in the dark behind a semi-transparent screen, with only the narrator in front. (This produced one mildly comical moment when the CSO chorus sprang into action by switching on an army of itty-bitty booklights.)
Of course, as far as sequels go, Lélio is like a big film studio making a low budget sequel to a blockbuster movie using scraps scavenged from the cutting room floor. None of the music was written specifically for the purpose of incorporation into Lélio and without the spoken narration it would be an irredeemably incoherent hodgepodge. Nonetheless, Muti's conviction coupled with Gérard Dépardieu's dramatic narration made for a very special evening. That said, I don't know why Dépardieu couldn't have memorized the entire text, given that he already performed this same program with Muti last season in Europe. I also don't understand why the overhead translation omitted more than 30% of the text. Lélio also showcased Muti's other great quality. Among the living he is simply unsurpassed at un-messing very messy choral-orchestral situations and putting orchestra and vocals on a level playing field. In this he will be a true heir to Sir Georg Solti, who was at his best in this discipline. So, perhaps one of the best things to hope for in this CSO-Muti marriage is that this period might mark a new golden age for the Chicago Symphony Chorus. I can't remember the last time I heard them sound this good. The vocals soloists on the other hand were a tad uneven. While Kyle Ketelsen merged luxurious air-power with utmost control and perfect French diction, Mario Zeffiri wasn't quite as convincing, and Muti had to repeatedly gesture to him to adjust the tenor's dynamics.
(PS: I can't help but imagine that some amount of vanity was involved in selecting an opening night program that involves a piece in which the narrator says: "Watch the conductor! He is very important!", and which ends with "We have many more works of music ahead of us than this feeble sketch.")
One concert is hardly a basis for making predictions about the future success of a new maestro-orchestra alliance and I won't engage in any such speculation here. There is no question the orchestra loves him right now, and so does the Chicago audience. But I have yet to hear something from Muti that convinces me that musically this will be something new that we haven't heard before. The CSO is already known as an unparalleled machine of symphonic precision. It does not need Muti for that. Muti is saying and doing all the right things right now to keep musicians and administration happy and excited about him. But the honeymoon will end eventually, and then we will have to see whether a nearly septuagenarian with only abstract awareness of iPods is the right person to lead this orchestra into a new era and conquer the hearts of new audiences. We will then also see whether Muti's stated commitment to being a musical ambassador, who will reach out to underprivileged groups in the city, will go beyond the token gestures he has made so far.
In the meantime, I will happily flock to Symphony Center to hear Muti unearth another forgotten Hindemith piece or any choral mass spectacle. But I don't think I will be terribly inclined to pay top dollar to hear perfectly executed but emotionally uninvolved performances of German romantics or French repertoire in generic sound when Muti is on the podium. In this respect I simply expect more from a CSO concert than what I have heard Muti deliver.