Chicago Meets Berkeley – Muti’s Orchestra in Rare Campus Visit

Chicago Meets Berkeley – Muti’s Orchestra in Rare Campus Visit

The maestro with the motionless baton brought his Chicago Symphony on tour to California with predictable old-line programs and polished performances.

That maestro is the veteran Italian Riccardo Muti, 76, music director of this esteemed orchestra since 2010. He offers listeners a surprise: He stops all movement of his baton several times a night and lets the ensemble fend for itself for several seconds. It’s as if to say, do you see what an incredible group of players we have, continuing flawlessly without even getting a beat?

Overall, Muti’s leadership is leisurely more than stodgy, and certainly less propulsive than past Chicago whirlwinds  like Georg Solti. His strongest suit is building up extraordinary climaxes, letting the vaunted brass section erupt in grand fortissimos to write home about.

With orchestra tickets priced unusually high ($175), Zellerbach Hall was far from full for the Oct. 13 concert opening a set of three programs. But audiences responded to the occasion, some breaking into applause after individual movements, incurring polite gestures of restraint from the podium.

Muti’s repute for ignoring the moderns of music alas remains very much alive. Out of eight works played here, all but one were composed by men who died before 1898. He doesn’t shy away from being old-line, he seems to revel in it, like an apostle seeking to convert novices to a great and timeless art form.

The notable exception this night was “All These Lighted Things” by Elizabeth Ogonek, 28, one of two composers in residence with the CSO (along with Sam Adams, son of Berkeley’s John Adams). In her 16-minute opus, New Yorker Ogonek spins spider webs of gossamer sound in her ambient sound, at times reminiscent of Debussy. From the inaudible violins starting two of the three movements, she progresses to sound textures rather than distinct themes, which are at best slivers. The sonic forest offers vague unthreatening shapes in her mysterious disorientations, at times on vibraphone or far-off woodwinds. The finale in contrast is peppered with surprise offbeat strokes and blows on percussion and staccato brass. Call me lead-footed, but nowhere did I pick up the “three little dances” of Ogonek’s subtitle.

The final work was that favorite Bruckner “Romantic” Symphony (No. 4), all 74 minutes, a mite too long for its own good, especially given the conductor’s laid-back interpretation. At pauses marking distinct sonic contrasts (loud-to-soft, soft-to-loud), attending organists all nod sagely, recalling that Bruckner was initially an Austrian organist needing pauses to activate different registrations from the keyboard; that stuck with him forever. The promenade-like slow movement is dominated by the violas that acquitted themselves magnificently. Muti’s crescendos were grand, nowhere greater than in at the very end, where the sumptuous Chicago brass appeared to open the Pearly Gates of Heaven just with their sound.

Yes, the “Lone Ranger” lives on. If you remember the old Wild-West drama on radio and TV, it used as its theme music the Rossini “William Tell Overture,” with that unforgettable brass fanfare rousing enough to set off a cavalry charge. This night’s best & biggest solo work came here via English horn soloist Scott Hostetler.

MUSIC NOTES—The renowned bright articulation, particular from the Chicago brass and woodwinds, was muted here, in large part for lack of risers to elevate the back-row players. (Risers are used routinely in Chicago.) This was unfortunate, both for the acoustic and the visual impression potentially made on the crowds.

The vagaries of composers going on tour: Ogonek reported that her work sounded distinctly different in each of the three halls played so far (Here, Kansas City, and Chicago’s Symphony Hall), because of differing acoustics.

By avoiding encores, the Chicagoans missed a chance at uniquely bonding with the West Coast audience. An encore could have been dedicated to the 90,0000-plus around the Napa-Sonoma wine country forced to vacate their homes because of the week-long multiple wildfires all over that region. At last check, nearly three dozen lost their lives to the fire, and more than 5,000 homes were destroyed.

THE LEGEND GOES ON—The composer Pierre Boulez, a previous principal guest conductor in Chicago, was much respected on the podium, and he had an extraordinary ear for sonic detail. Once, around the Millennium, some Chicago chamber players were rehearsing a very complex Boulez composition (aren’t they all?), with unaccustomed rhythms going all over the place. Nothing they tried seemed to make it work, so they invited Boulez to come in as a (volunteer) consultant. Boulez listened and made numerous suggestions, especially to master the rhythms. Within a short time, the work jelled as never before, and Boulez walked away, once again a hero.

Chicago Symphony on tour, Muti conducting. Oct. 13-15, Zellerbach Hall, Univ. of Calif. 0f Berkeley, under Cal Performances auspices. For info: (510) 642-9988, or go online.


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