The combination of elegance and brilliance Muti inspires in these 100-odd musicians is something to behold wherever the CSO performs. But at Carnegie, with its fabled acoustics that give back everything orchestras put in, these qualities are enhanced, extended, ennobled. The music-making takes on refinements of sound and style and color not readily available to the Chicago musicians back home. That’s what a great concert hall and a great orchestra under a great conductor can produce together.
For whatever reason, Thursday night’s CSO concert, the second of three Muti is scheduled to conduct this week at Carnegie Hall, did not sell to the extent “Carmina Burana” did the previous evening, which was sold out. But that was to be expected, since the Orff was Carnegie’s big season-opening gala and the choral blockbuster carries far more popular appeal than the more musically sophisticated program the CSO presented on Thursday.
There is, I suspect, another factor at play here. The Muti/CSO brand is still too new to New Yorkers to inspire the wild adulation that greeted Georg Solti’s visits here with the Chicago Symphony beginning in the early 1970s and continuing up to his death in 1997. The brand needs time to build. I’m confident it will get there.
The program framed “Alternative Energy,” a recent work by one of the CSO’s composers in residence, Mason Bates, with standard pieces by Richard Wagner and Cesar Franck, in such a way as to contrast Bates’ contemporary color palette with the Romantic aesthetic of the German and French masters.
Muti clearly believes that if you have music you admire from your resident composer, you circulate it as widely as possible. The CSO-commissioned “Alternative Energy,” which the maestro and his band premiered in Chicago in February and introduced to West Coast audiences during their California tour later in the month, is one such piece.
Bates’ “energy symphony” harnesses the power of electronica to the power of the CSO to produce a wildly exuberant orchestral romp with a subliminal message about saving the planet. Humanity’s use and abuse of increasingly powerful energy sources from past to future results in a 25-minute sonic thrill ride from a composer who’s as much at home in classical music circles as he is spinning records as a DJ in West Coast clubs.
Bates himself is part of the huge percussion armada, summoning an intricate array of prerecorded scrapes, whooshes and clicks from his laptop to punctuate orchestral textures alive with jazzy and pounding syncopations, quirky off-kilter rhythms, a jaunty country fiddle tune, an eerie Chinese flute solo and, in the futuristic finale (set in a post-apocalyptic rain forest in 2222 Iceland), a primitive rediscovery of fire that brings the scenario full circle.
Bates composes to please, and the Carnegie crowd was exhilarated by the quirky sounds bursting from the orchestra and six loudspeakers placed around the stage. By now the score is familiar fare to Muti and the CSO, and they played the bejesus out of it on Thursday. Bates came in the lion’s share of applause at the end.
Muti's reading of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" Overture at the beginning of the concert was highly charged with drama as well, the clarion horn sonorities ricocheting off the back and side walls thrillingly.
The maestro's Franck Symphony remains one of his central achievements with the CSO, set forth in majestic paragraphs of carefully terraced sound, the music’s ebbing and flowing chromatic lines so subtly controlled that nothing felt fussy or manipulated. Kudos to Scott Hostetler for his sensitive English horn solo, but none, I’m afraid to the principal horn, whose erratic playing was the only blot on a magnificent performance.
Celebrity sightings are rife whenever the CSO comes to Carnegie. Along with 18 members of the CSO patrons tour, audiences have included CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma and New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert on Wednesday; the renowned mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, former CSO resident composer John Corigliano and ballet dancer Alessandra Ferri on Thursday.
A "Maestro Suite" had been set up on an upper floor of the administrative offices in the Carnegie building for Muti to hold court following the concerts. Friends and well-wishers filed in, one or two at a time, to offer their bravissimos and receive a smile or pat on the cheek from the maestro.
I managed to elbow my way through the crush long enough to sneak a few words with him. Conducting “Carmina Burana” quite obviously had left him exhilarated, rather than spent. For all the score’s exuberance, it is “a deeply tragic” work, Muti observed. “That’s why the Nazis hated it. At first. Later, when it became popular all over Germany, they had to change their tune!”
I also bumped into two of the orchestra’s first violinists, concertmaster Robert Chen and assistant concertmaster David Taylor, both of whom expressed satisfaction over how well the CSO had been performing both at the concerts and during Muti’s relaxed, quip-filled rehearsals. The two had nothing but good things to say about what playing on the music-loving stage of Carnegie gives back to them and their colleagues.
"It's always great to come to Carnegie, a great hall that has a lot of history with this orchestra,” Chen said. As for the recent labor contract dispute, which was happily resolved just ahead of the tour, he said the orchestra musicians are “relieved not to have it hanging over our heads anymore.”
"Really, I’m just glad to be working in these trying times, especially to be working with Muti,” said Taylor. “Playing in this hall is always a pleasure. I still consider it one of the finest concert halls in the world, acoustically speaking. The band always plays its very best here.”Read dispatches from John von Rhein as he travels with the CSO at chicagotribune.com/vonrhein.