On Sunday September 19th, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented ”Festa Muti”-- a free concert in Millenium Park to celebrate the beginning of Ricardo Muti's tenure as music director. The event was handled with great creativity and there were added touches to make the crowd feel wanted and wooed to come hear the symphony under Muti this season. Free small versions of the Chicago Tribune were passed out featuring articles about Muti and the CSO, large Festa Muti lapel buttons were handed out as well as Festa Muti pennants.
Even with the threat of rain, the turnout for the event was huge (I just read an article estimating the crowd as numbering 25,000!). We arrived a couple hours beforehand and claimed a great spot on the lawn. Aidan settled in to playing Yuhgio and chess by himself while I did a little reading. About an hour before the main event a youth choir and orchestra performed a bit. Finally, at 5:30, and with the crowd control people actually closing off the main lawn because it was so packed, the main event began. People continued to arrive and were packed standing room only 20-30 people thick on the outskirts of the main area, with even more people claiming any space in the outer area of the park they could find. Even with this enormous crowd I saw no one getting frazzled or rude- the vibe of the event was very celebratory!
The program began with Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino, played with some lovely nuanced phrases. The strings were simply elegant throughout and it was the kind of sweet phrasing both of long lines and individual notes you would never have heard from former director Daniel Barenboim (okay, I've dissed him once now...and now we will move on). Next was Liszt's Les Preludes, not a real fave of mine, yet it was played with a very rich tone especially from the brass. The orchestra took a short break and then returned with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Again, not a favorite of mine, but I was pleased that it seemed like all the hackneyed, cliched approaches to this music had disappeared and for me it was kind of like hearing this piece for the first time in a sense, thanks to Muti's fresh reading of the score. All the drame was still there but there was no schmaltz- what a delight. I also felt that the usual divvying up and tossing of phrases from orchestral family group to family group that Tchaikovsky does so much that it is truly annoying, wasn't so obvious with Muti's approach. As I type this I'm sure how he did this, it's not like he rewrote the score.
Finally, the finale-- Respighi's Pines of Rome. I've always wanted to hear this piece live- it's such a hoot and full of amazing orchestration touches. The whole orchestra seemed really alive and each section of the piece was painted with vivid colors. The solo clarinet and flute passages were truly lovely and the offstage trumpet solo was gorgeous.
Overall, the symphony's strings sounded great all day, the brass were rich and full without ever being raucous (a sometimes complaint in the Solti golden era), and the woodwinds were fine (although a little pitchy, Dawg, in the last exposed woodwind choir of the Tchaikovsky...maybe blame the weather and humidity?). I felt that Muti's interpretations were impeccable, they were even slightly understated and he never just went for sweet schmaltz or bombastic noise, which could certainly be a temptation with a huge event like this. He truly brought out the best in each piece, and created both great musical lines and well constructed arches – in other words, he understood both the micro and macro elements of each piece-- what else could any composer hope for?
After the final chord of the Respighi rang out the audience leaped to their feet for a long ovation, Muti thanked the audience and cracked a few jokes, and then there was a surprise mini-fireworks show set off around the perimeter of the main lawn area. This was such a surprise, and young and old had looks of glee on their face as the fireworks went off all around us. What a great surprise.
So, I wasn't really intending on writing a concert review so much as honoring the fact hat the CSO and Muti wanted to put on this event and handled it so beautifully and with so much fresh creativity. This was a celebration of the CSO, of the city and the park, of Muti, of the people and it was an amazing success. Back in the 1970's and 80's when Georg Solti was virtually as well-known in Chicago (and even around the world) as Micheal Jordan, the city was hugely proud of this symphony and its accomplishments. It was sad to see the downfall of that with the hiring of Barenboim, whose personality both musically and personally was a terrible fit. The CSO musicians did the best they could under his tenure,yet the little dark cloud always hanging over then CSO president Henry Fogel's beloved “Danny” was always there. Probably the best thing that happened during that time was the orchestra's ability to work closely with Pierre Boulez year after year, and Boulez-led performances were always great. With Fogel's retirement, brilliant new president Deborah Rutter was able to quickly send Barenboim packing and reinvent the symphony and position it for new successes. The vibe we're hearing now is that the players love Muti, have always loved Muti, and things are going to be amazing. I wish them all the success in the world and thank them for a wonderful day in the park!
P.S. I just remembered that amidst Muti's thank yous to the audience and light banter was also this: he stated that the symphony is intent on reaching out to those people in the community who cannot, for whatever reason, come to them. In other words, a newly voiced commitment to outreach placed on record in front of thousands. I am truly pleased that he said this, and let's hope that all of us in this classical music world can do the same. We need to share this great music with everyone- not just the rich and educated club who already know about it. We need to get rid of, or reeducate, the classical music snobs and do this right, and especially reach out to young people (actually I was disappointed that I saw very few children at the event Sunday). We're seeing it with Gustavo Dudamel in South America and now in LA, musical ambassadors like Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin, and hopefully here a renewed effort in Chicago. Barenboim adamantly refused to do this sort of thing- yet Muti truly wants to do it- BRAVO!
P.P.S. Aidan's excited response to the bravura ending of Pines of Rome and the fireworks, "Daddy, they should just keep playing now, play every song in the universe!"