When Riccardo Muti stepped down from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last season, after 13 years as its conductor, the ensemble promptly turned around and named him music director emeritus for life.
In a two-part season opener at Carnegie Hall this week, it was easy to hear why.
Under Muti, the Chicago Symphony is all power and finesse with no unsightly edges. On Wednesday, in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the orchestra’s playing, strong yet nimble, drew on reserves of unforced power and charm. The following night, in an Italian-themed collection of programmatic works by Mendelssohn, Strauss and Philip Glass, a certain politesse crept into an otherwise classy performance.
There’s no better illustration of the orchestra’s might than the final movement of the Mussorgsky, “The Great Gate of Kyiv.” Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s delightful piano suite reaches its apotheosis here, and on Wednesday, Muti built a magnificent edifice out of it, with crashing cymbals, all-out brasses and majestic strings. Using an extreme economy of gesture, he barely had to move for the players to unleash torrents of stupendous, beautifully balanced sound.
At the risk of cliché, the ensemble’s remarkable cohesion feels like a kind of Midwestern humility, focusing attention on the music instead of individual players. Tasteful instrumental solos, like that of the concertmaster Robert Chen in Strauss’s “Aus Italien,” didn’t disturb the musical fabric. Technical mastery emerged in what wasn’t there: The heavenly woodwinds were airborne without being breathy, and the guest principal harp, Julia Coronelli, conveyed beauty without pluck in the Strauss and in Glass’s “The Triumph of the Octagon.” Muti’s dynamic mapping avoided jolts or spikes; ardor and neatness coexisted.
His “Pictures at an Exhibition” balanced theatricality and unity in the vividly drawn scenarios of Ravel’s orchestration. The first “Promenade,” in which Mussorgsky depicts himself wandering through the art show of his dearly departed friend, the painter Viktor Hartmann, had a gracious, wide-footed gait. Timothy McAllister’s satiny alto saxophone wafted like a mist through the wide stone halls of “The Old Castle.” “Tuileries” traded the unseemly lilt of whining children for a singsong quality. “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” lurched with delicious, brutal violence. Muti interpreted the score’s attacca markings (indicating that the movements should be played without pause) as seamless transitions instead of opportunities for surprise.
The orchestra’s plush power in the Tchaikovsky evoked the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, so it’s a shame that the evening’s soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, derailed the performance with curdled tone, sloppy passagework, cracked high notes and tuning issues. There were pretty turns of phrase in the second movement, and Kavakos could hide his unpolished sound in the guttural character of the third. For a performer of a normally high caliber, though, it was a shabby showing.
Glass’s “The Triumph of the Octagon,” dedicated to Muti, opened the second night. It’s a 10-minute piece inspired by a photo of a 13th-century Italian castle that Glass saw hanging in the maestro’s studio at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, a memory from Muti’s childhood. The music gradually accumulated a mysterious timelessness with the shifting emphases of its time signatures and the delicate deployment of woodwind timbres.
Muti avoided any inkling of stridency in the dashing opening of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, which rushed forward with grace and buoyancy. Melodies intertwined delicately in the Andante. The perpetual motion of the third movement felt unobstructed but also unhurried; the strings played all the way through phrases and left them hanging in the air, and the brasses were unafraid to assume a blanched color to maintain the movement’s particular tint.
The elegant passion on display in the Mendelssohn hampered the players in the Strauss, his first tone poem, a piece that wraps together images of Italy with the swooning ecstasies they arouse. Still, some passages are recognizably pictorial, such as the third movement’s suggestion of the shores of Sorrento, with the dappling of the sun on the surface of the sea rendered in shimmery chromaticism. There, the orchestra was quite enchanting, but in the second movement, it lacked punch. Too often, Strauss’s impetuous reveries were flattened into a predictable sameness.
A truer sense of romance and spontaneity could be found in the encores on both evenings. They were drawn from Italian opera, a specialty of Muti, who was the longtime music director of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Following the adrenaline rush of “The Great Gate of Kyiv,” Muti struck up the intermezzo from Giordano’s “Fedora” with seductive vulnerability.
On the second night, the overture to Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” had everything the Strauss didn’t: crackling energy and a sense of reveling — not just in the music, but also in the ensemble itself. It provided a handsome, though still subtle, showcase for the winds to take a victory lap — and for Muti to do so too.