Half a century ago, Riccardo Muti, then a wunderkind near the beginning of his stellar career, first conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival. Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was part of his premiere performance. 

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Riccardo Muti, Conductor

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Content Hall, Costa Mesa

When: Jan. 24


Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Anatoly Liadov, The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62

Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

It’s both fitting and touching, then, that on his farewell tour as the orchestra’s music director, Muti is again conducting “Pictures.” It was on Tuesday evening’s program at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall along with two other works that showcased the ensemble’s celebrated balance of brawn and finesse: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and “The Enchanted Lake,” a richly colorful symphonic poem by Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Liadov.

Muti, 81, is in his final season with the Chicago Symphony, and his departure is among several significant baton passings at American orchestras. Most prominent among them is Jaap van Zweden, who is leaving the New York Philharmonic in 2024. Locally, Pacific Symphony announced it is looking for a successor to music director Carl St.Clair. Next season will bring an impressive array of “guest” (ie. auditioning) conductors to Chicago, including Marin Alsop and Christian Thielemann.

The touring program was clearly chosen to allow Muti and the orchestra an opportunity to demonstrate their strengths. They didn’t disappoint.

The ensemble’s famously meaty brass sound is tailor-made for “Pictures” – something that Muti discovered when he first rehearsed the work with them in 1973.

“I was very impressed … no, ‘impressed’ is not enough,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2022. “I couldn’t believe the quantity of sound that came from the brass. I remember I had to reduce my gestures, because the sound was so big.”

The brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Credit: Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County/© Todd Rosenberg

And big it definitely is — but sonic oomph isn’t the brass section’s greatest selling point. In the climactic movement of Mussorgsky’s programmatic suite, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the iconic brass passages (brilliantly conceived in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration) are grand and emphatic but balanced, rounded, precise and warm: a beast wrapped in velvet, taking measured steps rather than a head-down charge.

The brass section’s calibrated combination of power and manners, guided by taste and thoughtfulness, is emblematic of the orchestra as a whole under Muti’s direction. This group has long been famous for its aspirations to musical perfectionism — it has few equals in the world in that regard — and it’s a trademark Muti quality as well.

Muti is meticulously demanding in rehearsal, with fierce attention to the tiniest details. That approach creates a clarity in performance that’s sometimes astounding, especially when you’re listening to a familiar work.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which began the evening, is a good example of the Muti effect.

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The first movement, with its unexpected key and tempo changes, seemed more transparent than usual — full of small but lovely moments that often get glossed over. And the dotted rhythms in the Vivace section have never sounded more dancelike. 

The mysterious second movement, a star moment for the orchestra’s Rolls Royce of a string section, revealed another bit of Muti magic. At times, he almost stopped conducting entirely, trusting the musicians to carry out the plan. Obviously, every detail was worked out in rehearsal. (That movement highlighted another Muti tendency: He doesn’t dawdle. Some conductors take it at a funereal pace. Muti reminds us that it’s marked Allegretto. The slightly urgent feeling of Muti’s tempo seemed intrinsically right.)

At other times, Muti’s conducting style can be effusive, driven, even a bit eccentric. His ramrod posture sometimes gives way to huge, weighty arm movements, dancelike side-to-side sways, and intricate sculpting motions, and he occasionally employs “conductor’s tremolo” — the rapid hand shakes directed at specific musicians that mean, “play it like it’s your last night on Earth.” He’s unerringly tasteful, but there’s just the right amount of showmanship to his style.

The orchestra’s sound, as mentioned, always gives the impression of immense power that’s tightly controlled, pristinely accurate and purposeful. One of the greatest surprises of the program was the overall politeness of the Beethoven. This performance reminded us that it’s a very early Romantic period work, still essentially Classical in many respects. Other conductors and orchestras give it the sweep and dynamic wallop of a Tchaikovsky warhorse. Muti and his orchestra don’t overdo the drama. This approach might not be to everyone’s taste, but it revealed little treasures that other more rambunctious performances don’t.

Sandwiched between the two musical giants on the program was Liadov’s slight but beautiful tone poem, “The Enchanted Lake.” (Programming obscure and sometimes undeserving works is another Muti trademark.) The conductor and his ensemble turned it into a bit of shimmery Mahler-meets-Debussy sorcery that almost made up for its aimlessness.

Muti touchingly acknowledged the tragic recent shootings in California by asking the audience to stand for a moment of silence before the concert began. He also dedicated the encore, the Intermezzo to Act 3 of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” to the victims of the violence. It was a reminder that in addition to his musical gifts, Muti has been a tireless promoter of the healing power of culture over the course of his long career. It’s one of many reasons that Chicago will miss him.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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