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CSO in Europe: At La Scala and Musikverein, Muti and his band receive a glowing welcome

Submitted by on Jan 29, 2017 – 11:52 am

At posh, multi-tiered La Scala, the Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony played to sold-out audiences. (Todd Rosenberg)

Report: Riccardo Muti is an adopted son of Milan and Vienna, and the Chicago Symphony is greeted like extended family.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

VIENNA – There’s no place like home, if even it’s your leader’s home away. In the welcoming embrace of Vienna’s acoustically splendid Musikverein concert hall, the touring musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made themselves very much at home, thank you.

For music director Riccardo Muti, the musical hearth is wherever you feel the love, where you’re adored, where you’re The Man. That’s Vienna, where Muti has made guest appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic for 46 consecutive years. But it’s also – and make no mistake about this – Milan, where the CSO played two concerts at the legendary Teatro alla Scala opera house, Muti’s house for two decades before the famous divorce of company and conductor in 2005.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony offered two concerts at Vienna's Musikverein. (Todd Rosenberg)Thus after the fascination of early stops on this European tour at new – or perhaps the term is new-fangled — concert halls in Paris and Hamburg, Muti and the CSO basked in the glory of La Scala (the orchestra’s first visit there since 1981) and then reveled in the sonic embrace of the Musikverein. In each venue, the CSO played both of its tour programs, and audiences in Milan as well as Vienna witnessed the visitors in peak form.

Through the tour’s initial arc of five cities – Paris and Hamburg, then Aalborg (Denmark) followed by Milan and Vienna – there were wonderful moments to savor at every point. (The European trek would wind up, without yours truly, in the German cities of Baden-Baden and Frankfurt.) Without fail, the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition” brought down the house. But three concerts stood out in their entirety, starting with the tour opener at the Philharmonie in Paris, which included “Pictures” but also featured terrific performances of Hindemith’s Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, Elgar’s “In the South” and Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain.”

Conductor Riccardo Muti and CSO concertmaster Robert Chen shared a triumph at the Musikverein. (Todd Rosenberg)The other two end-to-end thrillers came in the first concert at La Scala and the second concert at the Musikverein, and both involved the alternate program: Alfredo Catalani’s poignant “Contemplazione,” Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. If it’s true that the packed houses in both cities came predisposed to celebrate Muti, the rhapsodic ovations were also clearly inspired by hair-raising performances.

It seemed every soul in the Milanese press and the La Scala audience received Muti with the same question: When would he return to conduct opera? They got the nearest thing to it with Catalani’s “Contemplazione,” a work of shadowed lyricism that brought powerfully to mind the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In contrast, the sheer orchestral spectacle of “Don Juan” generated whoops and cheers from very savvy and demanding listeners in Milan and Vienna alike. And the Tchaikovsky Fourth? Forget it. After the scherzo’s hairpin, high-speed pizzicato flourishes and the finale’s all-stops-out rip, the bedazzled audiences tried their best to make just as wondrous a sound.

Riccardo Muti leads the CSO at La Scala, where he reigned for two decades. (Todd Rosenberg)While La Scala and the Musikverein share legendary status, they are nothing alike. The latter is a classic shoebox, the former a horseshoe-box with plush red seats at floor level surrounded by six soaring tiers. Whereas La Scala presents a posh décor of red, white and gold, the Musikverein displays a kind of patrician elegance with natural wood seats and gold ornamentation throughout the hall.

At La Scala, there’s an aesthetic thrill in merely surveying its empty expanse. This was Verdi’s home base for much of his career, and conductor Arturo Toscanini ruled here at three different times — ending all three stints on the same bad terms. At the Musikverein, electricity surges when the music is switched on. The most compelling tour version of Hindemith’s balance-challenging Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass came at the Musikverein – when it was nearly empty during a rehearsal. The Hindemith may be a tough sell, and I’m not sure the CSO’s tour audiences ever really took to it.

The two-year-old Philharmonie in Paris is a beauty; the brand-new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg – perched atop a warehouse – is intriguing and probably will remain controversial even as it becomes emblematic of that city. But La Scala and the Musikverein are musical marvels, cultural centerpieces, Old World treasures. At these favored ports of call, it seems the welcome mat will always be out for the Chicago Symphony.

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