The Muti era begins

Gerard Depardieu

I’m back from a short visit to Chicago. While I was there I had the chance to hear Maestro Muti lead the Chicago Symphony in their first subscription concert of the season. The buzz around Muti and the CSO is intense. Banners with Muti’s mug hang on just about every light pole in the Loop. Bus stop shelters have either audio or video advertisements for the CSO. A week prior 30,000 people ventured downtown to hear Muti lead the CSO in a public concert. All of this attention is expected of course. The CSO is a world class symphony with a world class conductor. The bar for this new partnership is set so high, one wonders whether the CSO and Muti and can meet expectations.

For the first subscription concert Muti reached deep into the bin of neglected scores. What he found was Hector Berlioz’s Lelio or (Return to Life). Lelio is the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. It is the composer’s story of overcoming unhappiness and a “return to life.” At a basic level, Lelio is Berlioz’s rumination on art, society, and life. In between seemingly random musical interludes are wayward monologues. The monologues themselves are nearly as long as the piece’s music. Compared to Fantastique, Lelio is incongruous, episodic, rambling, and wildly self indulgent.

When the Symphonie Fantastique and Lelio are on the same program – as Berlioz intended and how Muti presented them – the incongruities become even more obvious. Unlike Fantastique which mostly uses your standard symphony orchestra, Lelio employs a chorus, dramatic narrator (as Berlioz), piano, and even a tenor soloist (sung by Mario Zeffiri). For all of the Symphonie Fantastique’s wildness, instrumentation, and depictions it is still cohesive as a piece.  As the warm up for Lelio, the piece seemed out of place.

Muti’s Fantastique lacked fire, and perhaps even the raw passion other conductors have aimed for. This was a tame, though overall enjoyable performance of Symphonie Fantastique. The legendary power of the CSO was kept in check allowing details to emerge. The second movement’s waltz swung and swayed elegantly like I have never heard it before. Brass punctuated, rather than suffocated. Even the softest passages poured loudly from the orchestra. No detail was ignored. Muti used real bells. Last season, when Leonard Slatkin came to Seattle to conduct the piece, he brought a recording of the final movement’s bell part.

For all of the virtuosity of the CSO, the chorus, and Muti’s brilliance on the podium, neither was enough to save Lelio from itself. The narrator, acclaimed French actor Gerard Depardieu, was in persuasive form. Lelio’s overdone monologues were easier to bear because of his thunderous, committed performance. I am grateful to have heard the piece live, but there are usually reasons a piece of music is seldom performed. Most often, it is because it isn’t that good.

Muti’s tenure with the CSO is just beginning, but this past weekend’s opening concert is likely a sign of things to come. Muti has let it be known that he plans to program pieces others have neglected, challenging repertory notions. His concerts this season include pieces by Hindemith and Cherubini to name a few. Muti is bringing back concert performances of operas. Verdi’s Otello show’s up later in the season. The challenge for Chicagoans is to trust their new maestro’s artistic vision as he opens up new possibilities removed from the orchestra’s central European tradition.

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