Here is my Saturday September 25 Chicago Sun-Times and Friday September 24 suntimes.com review of the Thursday September 23, 2010 Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus all-Berlioz concert with Riccardo Muti conducting and guest narrator Gérard Depardieu. The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Tuesday night September 28 at 7:30 p.m.
The real work begins triumphantly with Riccardo Muti and the CSO
When establishing The University of Chicago 120 years ago, the school’s president William Rainey Harper observed, “Now the dreaming is over and the real work begins.”
So it is at Orchestra Hall this week and so it was onstage Thursday night. All the banners, buttons, and decorated bus shelters in the world proclaiming a new era with the arrival of Riccardo Muti as the 10th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra can’t make up for the business of presenting important and intriguing concerts at the highest musical level. This is, of course, what Muti has been brought here to do and this is what he has announced as his intention.
It tells you a lot about Muti that he is beginning his first subscription concert season with an unusual program -- and one that deals with both the dangers of and the need for dreams. By making the oft-played concert closer and sonic showpiece the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique the first half of the evening and giving the CSO debut of the composer’s rarely heard sequel to the work, Lélio, or The Return to Life, as the second half, Muti made it clear that conventional programming is not his thing. Just as important, his authoritative and insightful leadership of both works reminded us that he has much to show his audiences and much to bring out from his musicians.
Muti has been called a literalist and a perfectionist, and not always as compliments. Even though Lélio, an odd collection of six previously composed pieces for solo voice, piano (sometimes with four hands), chorus, and orchestra linked by highly theatrical spoken narration from an actor, never came anywhere near to joining the repertoire, Muti looks to the composer-author’s intention that the works together make up an Episode in the Life of the Artist and complete one another.
I spent a good part of Wednesday and Thursday viewing and attending talks on the astonishing collection of seven centuries of (mostly) works on paper of Chicagoans Richard and Mary Gray, featured in an exhibit opening this weekend at the Art Institute of Chicago. Seeing these dozens of drawings and prints by great artists, I gained some insight into what Muti finds in an imperfect work such as Lélio. As a drawing by an artist takes us closer to his thought process and character than does a fully worked painting, so a composer who wants us to see the workings of his mind and composition table is inviting us to get closer to him even via a work that might not, on its own, achieve all that a masterpiece does.
So it is with this pair of roughly hourlong musical experiments. The Symphonie can be played for much greater drama and often is by conductors who think that they must add emotion to a work that is itself about emotion. Muti’s insight here is that by first taking it down a notch and then following it with the composer-narrator’s misgivings about the powers of art and communication, we actually see just how weird this 1830 work still is, and how weird it should be.
The French film star Gérard Depardieu is absolutely in sync with the autobiographical narrative of Lélio, bringing us early 19th Romanticism live and in person. Clear-voiced Greek-born tenor Mario Zeffiri and recent Lyric Opera mainstay, Midwestern bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen understand well that behind the stage’s scrim they are singing set pieces in a dreamscape.
This sense of common vision is only heightened by the exquisite work of the CSO and its Chorus, the latter sounding at the top of its form under director Duain Wolfe. You cannot call this a honeymoon because normally it takes a very long time for a conductor and performers to reach this level of rapport. But you can observe that instrumentalists are playing and choristers are singing as if every day is a special occasion. Already Muti’s famous ability to achieve the quietest sounds even from the most virtuosic ensembles is evident.
And individual work from such section leaders as Scott Hostetler, English horn, Eugene Izotov , oboe, and guest clarinet Alessandro Carbonare from Rome shines and connects even more when a conductor elevates the sense of common purpose. This program is a case of dream and reality coming fully together through the hard work of making art.