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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Concert Review: Going Out with a Bang

The CSO concludes its three-night Carnegie Hall stand.
Conductor Riccardo Muti.
Photo © Chicago Symphony Orchestra
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Last night was the final concert for Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's at Carnegie Hall this season. It offered New Yorkers a chance to hear a program that was successful in Chicago: an unconventional triptych of works by Dvorak, Respighi and the lesser-known pianist-composer Giuseppe Martucci.

The concert opened with Dvořák's Fifth Symphony, the work that marks the start of the composer's mature period. (Prior to the publication of a new edition of the Czech composer's symphonies in the 1950s, this piece was widely known as Symphony No. 1.) It remains a marvelous, if under-performed example of the composer's style.

Mr. Muti led a bold, robust account of the score, with the rich cellos and potent horns of the CSO to the fore. The conductor leapt (literally) into the rollocking main theme, drawing precise, almost Bach-like harmonies underneath the swaggering main subject. The bold, brassy performance drew unexpected early applause from a few concert-goers, who were either overcome by the piece or simply didn't know better.

The second movement is inspired by the dumky, a slow Bohemian folk dance that was a particular favorite of the composer. Horns and cellos came to the fore in the slow movement, leading a mournful procession that still had the hint of a smile to it. The woodwinds scampered through the third movement, a playful scherzo with a lilting central trio. The muscular Rondo that ended the piece was whipped to a frenzied height by Mr. Muti, who himself leapt into the air at a key moment in one of the repetitions.

The maestro took an opportunity to address the audience just after the intermission.

"Before we say goodbye," he said, "we would like to play two works by Italian composers, who did not get rich by writing operas." He then went on to introduce Notturno by Giuseppe Martucci (dedicating the work to Marilyn Horne) and Ottorino Respighi's final set of tone poems: Roman Festivals.

It may be an odd decision: dedicating a performance of a little known orchestral transcript of a piano work by an obscure composer to a retired mezzo-soprano. But the Notturno (a shimmering, evocative portrait of the conductor's native Naples) had profound meaning in its six minutes. The sheer warmth of orchestral expression indicated the depth of connection between the conductor and Ms. Horne.

The thunderous Roman Festivals is ideally suited to the acoustic of Carnegie Hall, the venue which hosted the work's world premiere in 1929 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. Mr. Muti's performance was mindful of that legacy. It opened with Circenses, a bold, Straussian piece which depicts Christians being thrown to the lions at the Circus Maximus for the entertainment of the masses. A huge flood of sound came from the stage, punctuated at intervals by three trumpeters infirst tier box that caused concert-goers sitting next to them to clap their hands over their ears.

A weighty tread in the cellos and basses announced the begnning of Il giubileo, ("The Jubilee")  which depicts pilgrims arriving in Rome. The orchestral depiction of church bells ringing (later joined by actual percussion instruments and piano) was not just a superficial effect, but one played with passion and depth of field.

The third movement L'Ottobrata ("The October Festival") lurched playfully into its difficult  main theme dominated by the solo horn. Woodwinds and percussion depicted carousing, celebrating Romans before shifting into a lush serenade with mandolin and harp. Finally, La Befana ("Epiphany") evoked the mad crowd crush of the city at holiday times. Respighi's orchestral detail is overwhelming in this finale, even including the familiar rhythm of a barrel organ.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.