Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s season opener

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 4.10.2023. (RP)

Riccardo Muti (conductor) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35
MussorgskyPictures from an Exhibition (arr. Ravel)

Carnegie Hall opened its 2023/24 season with a gala event, the musical centerpiece of which was a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its recently named music director emeritus for life, Riccardo Muti. These affairs are not only glittery but also essential money-raising events for arts organizations, even prestigious ones such as Carnegie Hall. The evening was as much a triumph artistically as it was financially: more than $5.6 million was raised, the most ever for a Carnegie Hall opening night gala.

The first of the two works on the program was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist. Tchaikovsky composed the concerto in March 1878 in the Swiss Alps near Lake Geneva. Deemed unplayable and derided by the critics, the concerto went on to become one of the most beloved and popular in the repertoire. This performance left no doubt as to why.

Riccardo Muti conducts violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg

Looking every inch the Romantic violinist with his flowing hair, Kavakos mesmerized with his impassioned yet elegant playing. His silvery tone dazzled, whether he was spinning out Tchaikovsky’s melodies, generating heat in the concerto’s passionate climaxes or breezing through its virtuosic turns.

Muti opted for a certain degree of restraint in this reading of the concerto, which only added to its power and intensity. The orchestra’s sound was transparent and refined, even in the concerto’s lusher, emotion-laden moments. Waves of sound poured into the hall as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s soaring melodies. Violinist and orchestra were equally exhilarating in the concluding coda which brought the concerto to a thrilling finish.

Ravel was not the first composer to orchestrate the Mussorgsky piano suite Pictures from an Exhibition, but he did so with an unsurpassable technical brilliance. The paintings were by Victor Hartmann, Mussorgsky’s close friend, whose death at the age of 39 greatly saddened the composer. He conceived this walk through an exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings as a tribute to the artist. Ravel’s orchestration has brought him immortality.

The orchestra reveled in the work’s orchestral colors, as Muti led them in a stately stroll through the exhibition. From the trumpets’ entrance in the first statement of the ‘Promenade’, each work of art was depicted with intriguing and precise musical brushstrokes. The plodding of an ox cart in ‘Bydlo’ contrasted with the lyricism, lightness and humor that Muti elicited in the ‘Ballet of the Chicks’, while far more terrifying sounds emerged from ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs’. In the concluding movement, ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, a giant bell tolled solemnly before Muti unleashed the full power of the orchestra in the reprise of its majestic melody.

Muti came full circle with this performance of Pictures from an Exhibition: it was the first work that he conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1973. He stepped down as its music director earlier this year after thirteen seasons.

As the applause waned, Muti turned to speak to the audience. Stating that he did not want to interject politics into the agenda, he told of conducting the work in front of the Great Gate of Kiev. Nothing more needed to be said to prompt a solemn moment of reflection.

Not wishing to end the evening on a pensive note, Muti announced that the orchestra would play the Intermezzo from Giordani’s Fedora as an encore. Its achingly beautiful melody afforded the orchestra’s strings a final moment in the limelight, and they seized it.

Rick Perdian

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