Muti sparks exhilarating CSO opener with brilliant and bizarre Berlioz

Fri Sep 24, 2010 at 2:03 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's season Thursday night with music of Berlioz. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Without taking anything away from Sunday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance in Millennium Park, the event was as much a grandly scaled public welcoming party for Riccardo Muti as it was a serious music concert.

Thursday night at Symphony Center, the CSO’s new music director got down to business, opening the season and his music directorship with an evening devoted to Hector Berlioz.

One doesn’t automatically associate Muti with French repertoire—though he laid down a killer recording of the Symphonie fantastique with the Philadelphia Orchestra a quarter-century ago. Yet Muti’s first program choice proved characteristically individual, serving up Berlioz’s celebrated symphony alongside its rarely heard “sequel,” Lelio.

But it was the palpable sense of occasion, the excitement and the–surprisingly early–affection of the audience toward their new Italian music director that was nearly as striking Thursday night as the music-making. Loud cheers and a standing ovation greeted his entrance, and even the national anthem seemed to have an extra bit of punch and vigor with Muti conducting the audience. Leaning forward, he motioned intensely for more volume from the no doubt startled patrons in the front rows, as if they were recalcitrant choristers.

With no disrespect toward his predecessors—particularly Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink who shepherded the CSO through the crucial interim period—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has not had a leader with this kind of podium charisma and authoritative command since the halycon years of Sir Georg Solti.

Muti was even more animated Thursday than he has been to date: crouching low for quieter dynamics, gesturing entrances more emphatically, marking the rhythm with his body language, and, at the start of the fugal passage in the symphony finale, even leaping in the air.

The Symphonie fantastique opened the concert—not something one experiences very often. Yet Berlioz’s opium-fueled phantasmagorical fantasy also served to show that what makes Muti so distinctive in Romantic repertoire is his Classical restraint. Whereas others regard Berlioz’s boisterous scoring and dynamic extremes as a license to push louder and faster for cheap effect, Muti’s Berlioz was almost Mozartian in its tonal refinement and transparency. His balancing is decidedly European, with brassy excess quelled and strings and woodwinds on top.

Yet this was as vividly characterized a fantastique as one will ever hear. The string playing was often stunning in its beauty and refinement, with a gossamer delicacy to the first entrance of the violins in the opening movement. Yet for all its Gallic elegance, the schizoid mood-swings had bracing impact with Muti’s rhythmic cut and contrapuntal vitality consistently enlivening the music.

The Un bal movement went with uncommon Old World grace and elegance, and the CSO woodwinds covered themselves in glory in the Scene aux champs with wondrous atmospheric solos by oboe Eugene Izotov, English horn Scott Hostetler, and guest clarinetist Alessandro Carbonare, principal with the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia in Rome. The March to the Scaffold and Witches Sabbath finale were thrilling as much for the clarity of articulation and transparency as the brassy power, culminating in a thunderous enthusiastic ovation for Muti and the orchestra.

Those who consider Berlioz’s symphony indulgent and over the top should brace themselves for Lelio after intermission. This successor work continues Berlioz’s obsessions, here presented in an odd musico-theatrical hybrid.

Adhering to Berlioz’s instructions for Lelio, the orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor perform for most of the work unseen behind a scrim curtain in darkness. An actor represents Berlioz at the front of the stage in the extended spoken sections, here played by the celebrated Gerard Depardieu, with just a sitting chair as a prop.

Berlioz/Lelio gives vent to the composer’s angst and romantic misfortune, and bemoans his fate while assailing the clueless Philistines who can’t appreciate his work or that of Shakespeare. Ultimately, the actor realizes that only through fulfilling his artistic destiny through music can he hope to achieve happiness.

The spoken narrative is coequal with the six musical sections in this oddly configured work, and Berlioz recycled some of the music from his cantatas, Le mort de Cleopatre and La mort de Orphee. There is some worthy music here, notably the gorgeous Chant de bonheur and the finale for orchestra and chorus inspired by The Tempest.

The most effective moment is when the lights and curtain come up at the end, the orchestra and chorus are visible and the composer’s music is played (conducted here by Muti, not by the actor). While Berlioz was clearly hoping for a touching finale, the actor’s text exhorting and complimenting the orchestra in detail on the quality of their performance proved undeniably amusing in the context of the evening and the poignancy of the coda was somewhat lost.

In its day Lelio rivaled the symphony in popularity, yet today it seems dated, musically uneven and structurally unwieldy. And while Berlioz’s indulgent romantic fantasies made for brilliant and compelling music, when communicated through the spoken word, he’s a bit of a self-obsessed, whiny bore–even in French.

That said, this problematic work is unlikely to receive finer advocacy. Reading from a script, the portly Gerard Depardieu certainly suggested a tormented, dissipated artist, and the French actor brought fiery theatrical intensity and depth of feeling to his monologues.

Despite an initial wobble, Mario Zeffiri demonstrated an impressive high tenor voice and sang with touching sensitivity, with a beautifully rendered Chant de bonheur. Kyle Ketelsen brought the requiste swagger to the Brigand’s Song with aptly fervent piratical support by the men of the CSO Chorus.

Muti drew out the radiant beauties in the score, performed with total commitment and corporate dedication by the CSO, and the singing of Duain Wolfe’s full CSO Chorus was on the same level.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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