Muti’s point of view powerfully at work in Berlioz, Debussy program with CSO

SHARE Muti’s point of view powerfully at work in Berlioz, Debussy program with CSO
SHARE Muti’s point of view powerfully at work in Berlioz, Debussy program with CSO


There are many things that characterize conductors. Too often both audience and critics concentrate on the purely physical, or rely on often out-of-date anecdotes about personal behavior, in forming their impressions of the person on the podium.

In addition to the key areas of work ethic, discipline and curiosity, point of view is of real importance in understanding a major conductor. The view that such a figure brings to a piece is what is transmitted to the orchestra and, if the conductor is effective, from their playing to the audience.

Riccardo Muti brings several intriguing perspectives to his preparation and performance of both works with which he has long experience and those new to his repertoire. He is very conscious of the history of each composer he conducts and very interested in in how each developed his artistry. He has a great belief in grace in performance and he has a fascination with the quality of sound itself, often much more than the harmonic underpinnings and structure that attracts some other leading figures.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti, conductor Recommended When: Repeats 8 p.m. Fri and Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $33-$249 Info: (312) 294-3000;

Bring those three areas together and you get a sense of how Muti was able to make a nearly 200-year-old, 11-minute overture by a composer at the beginning of his career — and a piece never played before by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in its own 123-year history — the key to his program this week. Thursday night opened with the “Waverley” Overture, which Hector Berlioz, who would later make his name with massive works such as the “Symphonie fantastique” and the epic opera “The Trojans,” labeled his Op. 1. Written between 1826 and 1828 and premiered when Berlioz was just 24, “Waverley” shows that so many of the ingredients of this highly unusual self-created master’s style and concepts were already present even before Beethoven’s symphonies changed his life and set his head spinning. Muti drew players and listeners in to the gentle opening and the dizzying second half as if saying, “Do you see? You must know this piece to know this composer?” And he would be right in saying so.

For Debussy’s much more familiar 1903-05 “La mer,” the Muti methods had more complicated results, at least at this first performance.

Stripping away the haze or gauziness that many find or expect in this Impressionistic work about watching the sea, Muti’s challenge was, “Where is the haze in the score? I see notes, not ‘impressions.’” Playing was beautiful across all parts of the orchestra in both solos and sections. But my guess is that this challenge will be met more fully all around in the subsequent performances. There are a lot of habits of both listening and playing when it comes to Debussy.

The first symphony of Muti’s season-long Tchaikovsky cycle, the F minor Fourth of 1877-78, was heard to pleasurable effect at the outdoor “Concert for Chicago” last Friday at Millennium Park. What a difference an indoor concert made! Again one could not help but notice Muti pushing for an almost constant gracefulness even when the composer is usually seen as expressing turbulence. But with four exceptional wind soloists, the near-perfect CSO cello section and concertmaster Robert Chen’s elegant leading of the violins, the result said, “All Tchaikovsky performances do not need to be created the same.” This was another intriguing connection with Muti’s point of view, one that drew long cheers from the audience.

Note: The Berlioz overture is repeated Friday. Saturday holds the rare Mendelssohn “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” instead, and Tuesday sees Tchaikovsky’s unusual “The Tempest,” also heard at Millennium Park. It’s all about preparing for the upcoming CSO tour to Europe.

Andrew Patner is a Chicago freelancer writer and critic.

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