NEW YORK – It wasn't the tumultuous ovation that went on into the night following the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first Carnegie Hall concert under then-music director Georg Solti back in 1970, but it was loud and it was instantaneous.
Wednesday night's performance of Carl Orff's “Carmina Burana” under Riccardo Muti's direction gave the CSO's tour to New York and Mexico not only a roaring send-off but also gave the dressy patrons who packed Carnegie Hall a season opener to remember.
More than a week earlier, the threat that a musicians strike in Chicago could scuttle all three of the CSO's scheduled Carnegie concerts reportedly had Clive Gillinson, the hall's executive and artistic director, making frantic calls around the world so he could have a replacement orchestra waiting in the wings. No wonder he was all smiles when greeting the orchestra at its morning rehearsal.
Carnegie's famously warm, embracing acoustics make almost any orchestra sound good, but in the case of the CSO, they cushion its world-class music-making with a luxuriance that Orchestra Hall cannot match. At the afternoon rehearsal Muti had cautioned his musicians, along with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Chicago Children's Choir, that they didn't need to push their sound to the degree they were used to doing back home. At the concert there was no forcing, and the built-in bloom of the hall sonics took care of the rest.
Muti made his podium the command post from which to marshal a performance as musically sensitive as it was viscerally exciting. Even as the maestro gave himself over to the Dionysian side of this cantata in praise of wine, women and gambling, the Apollonian part of him insisted on tight choral-orchestral formations, carefully observed dynamics and rhythms, and precise enunciation of the text from the orchestra, choruses and vocal soloists. There was nothing half-way about any of it.
The maestro's view of “Carmina Burana” as a deeply tragic work (the very opening refers to this “hateful life”) did not preclude his giving full rein to the music's earthy colors and lusty sensuality. What a pleasure to hear the opening and closing “O Fortuna” choruses resounding to the back of the hall with a physical impact more potent than in Chicago.
When it came to projecting the text of “In Taberna” clearly, at top speed, the male chorus really outdid itself. Add to this the clear, shimmering women's voices and you had another reason why director Duain Wolfe deserved his ovation at the end. The children's chorus — the bambini, as Muti affectionately called them at rehearsal — sang angelically from a perch at the right edge of the first tier. In the purely orchestral sections, the CSO musicians gave Muti the flashing colors and elemental harmonies he asked for.
The vocal soloists — soprano Rosa Feola, countertenor Antonio Giovannini and baritone Audun Iversen — fit Muti's belief in the appropriateness of beautiful, lyrical voices for this work. An irresistible sweep of erotic longing in the “Veni, veni, venias” double chorus ushered in Feola's rapt and caring song of submission, “In Trutina.” Her high notes appeared to float above the flower-bedecked stage.
Iversen had the lion's share of solos, and he delivered them with acute sensitivity to text, even if his warm, pleasing sound didn't always cut through properly or carry the bite others bring to this music.
The pathetically funny roasted swan solo can be done either by a tenor singing in falsetto or a countertenor. Muti prefers the latter voice type, citing Orff's late wishes as his authority. Giovannini made the most of his cameo.
At the end, the throng rose to its feet to award Muti and company a storm of cheers and applause. Two more concerts remain at Carnegie before the CSO road show heads to Mexico.
And speaking of Mexico … my curiosity about how the CSO transports its touring equipment between Chicago and New York, then from New York to cities south of the border, prompted me to seek out Heidi Lukas, CSO director of operations, for a briefing.
Roughly 15 tons of equipment, borne by two 53-foot tractor-trailers from Chicago, were unloaded backstage at Carnegie on Tuesday, in advance of Wednesday's tour opener. Cargo included wardrobe trunks and heavier instruments such as the raft of percussion needed for the performances of Mason Bates' “Alternative Energy” here on Thursday and Respighi's “Feste Romane” on Friday.
The player roster for this tour numbers 112, including supplementary musicians used in the Respighi. The adult and children choristers taking part in “Carmina Burana” numbered 143; their portion of the tour is over, and they were due to return home Thursday.
An orchestra of 88 musicians is performing Thursday's concert at Carnegie as well as the concerts in Guanajuato on Monday and Mexico City on Wednesday.
Each fall Guanajuato hosts arts organizations from all over the world, and the CSO will play its 40th anniversary Festival Internacional Cervantino.
The biggest logistical challenge, Lukas admitted, will be getting everything to and from Mexico.
A charter cargo jet carrying all equipment is scheduled to leave JFK Airport here late Friday and is to arrive early Saturday in Guadalajara, about 181 miles west of Guanajuato in north central Mexico. Once there, it will be loaded onto large trucks for the 31/2-hour trek to Guanajuato. Outside the town, the cargo will be transferred to smaller trucks better equipped to navigate the small roads in the mountainous region. If all goes as planned, the cargo will arrive there and be loaded into the Teatro Juarez by Saturday afternoon.
“We are doing it early because there won't be so much traffic,” Lukas said.
Finding room for everything, and everyone, will be an added challenge: The backstage of Teatro Juarez is cramped, and 88 CSO musicians will fill the stage. The hall seats only 800.
How it will all work, time will tell. And we're not even talking about what it will take to get the CSO and its stuff the 277 miles that separate Guanajuato and Mexico City. Stay tuned.
Read dispatches from John von Rhein as he travels with the CSO this week and next at chicagotribune.com/vonrhein.