NEW YORK — While much of the nation was focused on the first presidential debate Wednesday night, there was no debate among Manhattan's classical music cognoscenti over who the most prestigious musical visitors of the week were, and are.
In fact, there was no contest.
The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra spent Wednesday afternoon rehearsing with music director Riccardo Muti in preparation for their opening tour concert Wednesday night, a gala performance of “Carmina Burana” at Carnegie Hall. Four more concerts will follow, two each in Carnegie and two more in Mexico to conclude the tour on Oct. 10.
Carl Orff's splashy cantata is launching both the Carnegie season and a weeklong CSO residency in the fabled hall, which opened in 1891, the same year the Chicago Symphony was founded. Joining the orchestra at Carnegie — the only tour venue to hear the Orff — are the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Children's Choir and vocal soloists.
Carnegie Hall galas, like Chicago's, do not skimp on conspicuous consumption. Or opulence. The top tickets for “Carmina Burana” went for $154; patrons paid extra to attend a post-concert supper. The concert was to be broadcast and streamed live over WFMT-FM 98.7, New York's WQXR and some 20 other radio stations across the country.
The CSO musicians I talked to sounded fired up about returning to Carnegie, whose warmly enveloping acoustics never fail to display the orchestra at its best. They also appeared glad not to have a contract dispute hanging over their heads any longer.
But they disagreed as to how much effect, if any, the CSO's 48-hour strike and subsequent joint ratification of a new labor agreement late last month will have on this tour.
CSO violist Maxwell Raimi said he was afraid the tour wouldn't happen, so deep-seated were the differences between labor and management.
"It's fascinating for us to play 'Carmina Burana' today," he remarked during a rehearsal break Wednesday afternoon. "The last time we played this music was the day after we had given a strike authorization. Now to be able to play it, when we only have to think about doing what we do (as an orchestra), is great."
Principal oboe Eugene Izotov reserved his gratitude for Carnegie itself, a hall he came to know and love during his years as principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
"We (CSO musicians) try to do our best wherever we play," he said. "But when you're playing on the stage of Carnegie Hall it's a very liberating feeling, because it's all about the music."
Stephen Lester, the CSO bass player who is chairman of the orchestra members committee, said he feels no connection between the contract contention and the tour. “We are back to business,” he said. "We are dealing with our maestro and the audiences here and in Mexico. We don't think about (the contract dispute). There obviously are issues we will have to think about, but not on this trip."
For his part, a relaxed and jovial Muti taped an interview with Charlie Rose for Rose's PBS TV program, which aired Tuesday night.
In the course of their half-hour conversation, the 71-year-old maestro disputed his image as an “authoritarian” conductor. “When you have the eyes of 100 musicians looking at you, waiting for you to reveal heaven to them,” he said, “you need to convey a certain conviction, which to some people means you are authoritarian.”
He rated the Chicago Symphony along with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic as “the three best orchestras in the world.” But when he was asked where the New York Philharmonic (an orchestra he has guest conducted many times and several times asked him to be its music director) falls in that hierarchy, Muti replied only that “they are very good musicians.”
The maestro signed off with a wry quip about how he'd like his obituary to read: “Here lies Riccardo Muti, a crazy man who spent all his time trying to find the ideal quarter note.”
Monday and Wednesday will bring the first concerts the CSO will ever have played in Mexico, where Muti is a known quantity. First stop is at the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato; the second will be in the historic Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, the CSO players are keeping busy, with Citizen Musician and other outreach and educational activities. On Wednesday, principal clarinet Stephen Williamson got the chance to partake of a piece of American musical history.
At the invitation of the Rose Museum, the official archives of Carnegie Hall, he became the first clarinetist to play one of the museum's clarinets once belonging to the legendary Benny Goodman since it had been repaired. The instrument had remained in its original case, untouched, its wood cracked, since Goodman's daughter Rachel donated it to the museum long ago.
But after recent repairs rendered the clarinet playable once again, Williamson jumped at the chance to cut loose with a few Goodmanesque licks on Benny's fabled licorice stick.
So how did it feel? “I was absolutely delighted,” Williamson said with a smile.