CSO IN MEXICO

Mexico City provides festive finale to CSO, Muti tour

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti shakes hands with cellist John Sharp following the orchestra's encore of Martucci's Notturno at Palacio de Bellas Artes theater in Mexico City. (Todd Rosenberg Photography / November 2, 2012)

— It's an edifice harking to a more opulent era, an inspired fusion of Old World elegance and New World vitality. Even the name is grand: Palacio de Bellas Artes.

It was here, in this granite-clad complex considered Mexico City's and Mexico's most important cultural center, that Riccardo Muti y la Orquesta Sinfonica de Chicagoas they were billed in the program book — concluded their tour to New York and Mexico on Wednesday night.

The event recalled other stops along the 10-day, three-city tour route, in terms of both playing quality (high) and audience response (very attentive throughout, joyous at the end). You wouldn't have guessed that this was the end of a two-nation trek, so charged up did the musicians and Muti sound.

One miscreant who dared to applaud between movements of the Brahms Second Symphony was promptly shushed. The dressy crowd broke into clamorous applause even before the final chord had died away. Muti is a master at making an audience crave more. There was a wave of rhythmic applause before Muti granted an encore — Martucci's “Notturno,” which he dedicated, in Italian, “to the public of this magnificent theater.” A final twiddle of the Muti digits, first to the orchestra members, then to the crowd, and the tour was history.

The Bellas Artes' semicircular auditorium holds only 1,380 but looks and feels considerably larger, partly because of the vast marble-columned public areas, partly because of the high, domed ceiling that casts its light on polished maple wood floors and velvet, burgundy-colored seats.

The surprise was the quality of the acoustics, clear and pleasant, if not exactly present. An ugly latticework panel at the rear of the stage did little to push the sound out into the house. Even so, the stage kicked up enough high-frequency sound energy to flatter the fine CSO violin choir better than Chicago's Orchestra Hall has done since the 1997 renovation.

The players I talked to afterward were relieved to have the sonic horror that is the Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato, Mexico, safely behind them.

Begun in 1901 but not completed until 1934, the Palace of Fine Arts dominates the modern center of this populous city, ringed by parks and broad avenues clogged with traffic just about round the clock. Its neoclassical and art nouveau exterior is topped by a leaden glass vitraux depicting the gods of Olympus. (Muti no doubt was pleased to be rubbing elbows with Zeus and Apollo.)

There's more. A proscenium arch representing the various stages of the theatrical art through the ages frames a 1910 Tiffany-designed crystal fire curtain depicting the Mexican valley and its two major volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. The massive Diego Rivera murals that line the upper corridors are a further reminder of the enormous pride Mexicans take in their cultural history.

Wednesday's concert, which made happy bedfellows of Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor and Brahms' D major Symphony, had been sold out for months, so theater officials obligingly did what their counterparts at Guanajuato's Festival Cervantino had done for the CSO earlier in the week: They broadcast the concert via closed-circuit hookup to the plaza outside the theater where a large crowd of primarily young people watched on video screens. Had management taken heed of vacant seats, they could have invited some of the outsiders in.

The CSO's debut in Mexico City represented a collaboration between the Cervantino festival and the U.S. embassy in Mexico. I'm sure it won't be the orchestra's last visit to this culturally sophisticated part of North America.

Muti's master class

Unlike the CSO musicians, Muti is no stranger to performing in Mexico, having brought the Vienna Philharmonic on tour to Monterrey and Mexico City some five years ago. He doesn't recall much about that visit, apart from the atrocious amplification the players had to endure when playing a 9,000-seat sports arena on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The maestro was a busy man Wednesday morning and afternoon. He devoted the late morning and early afternoon to conducting a CSO-sponsored master class at the Palacio Bellas Artes. There he rehearsed and discussed Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony with a small orchestra made up of members of Mexico's top orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional, or National Symphony Orchestra, which presents twice-weekly concerts here.

The event attracted roughly 700 young music students, VIPs, members of the media and lay listeners hoping for an inside look at how a great conductor takes apart a musical score phrase by phrase with an orchestra, refines the components and puts them back together to achieve a finished performance.

Addressing the orchestra and audience in Italian (with a bit of English thrown in), Muti laced his musical exegesis with bits of artistic philosophy along with his usual sly asides, anecdotes and Latin charm, which needs no translation. The orchestra players and audience members listened attentively and laughed in all the right places.

After working in painstaking detail on phrasing, dynamics, accentuation and expression in a particular passage, Muti turned his back on the orchestra and had them play it by themselves. They did so beautifully. “So you see,” Muti exclaimed, “conducting is a useless profession!”

Turning serious once more, he cited the legendary Herbert von Karajan's “profound” dictum that, in an ideal performance, “the orchestra really is conducting the conductor.”

By the end of the more than two-hour master class, one came away appreciating what Muti meant when he called the Mozart symphony “metaphysical.” Watching and listening to him work with an orchestra he had never conducted before, you realized the Muti magic is eminently transferable from country to country, culture to culture.

Read all of John von Rhein's dispatches from the CSO tour at chicagotribune.com/vonrhein.

jvonrhein@tribune.com
Twitter @jvonrhein

CHICAGO

More