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Dispatch from New York: A weekend of maestros on the mend

April 18, 2011 |  7:48 pm


Muti The myth and mystique of conductors is easily questioned.  Especially in tough financial times, the high salaries men (and a few women) are paid to wave a baton in front of highly trained musicians can to some seem exorbitant (especially since one group, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, performs without a conductor).  But this past weekend in New York, two of the world’s most famous maestros showed audiences why conductors do indeed matter.  Both overcame injuries and difficult scores to deliver singular musical interpretations to standing-room audiences.

On Friday night it was Italian maestro Riccardo Muti leading his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Verdi’s opera, “Otello” at Carnegie Hall.  Muti has been in the news the past few weeks, and not only for his music making.  In February, the conductor collapsed at the podium during a rehearsal in Chicago.  Then in March, after surgery, he confronted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi backstage in Rome at a performance of “Nabucco” over cuts in Italian arts funding.

Friday’s “Otello” made people forget about those headlines with a torrent of sound unleashed by a team of top vocalists (including Russian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as the Moor of Venice) and the vaunted Chicago horns. The night was all about the music. Literally: no sets, no costumes and, especially for this opera, no blackface to distract from Verdi’s masterpiece.

The combination of the orchestra onstage (instead of in a pit) and Muti’s meticulousness made this an “Otello” the likes of which few in the audience had heard.  The pizzicato playing in the “Fuoco di Gioia!” sounded as bright as fireworks, the cello solo in Act 1 contained more dramatic weight than entire operas by lesser composers, and the deep tremolo of the double basses gave the final, tragic scene an otherworldly feeling.

In Act IV, just after Desdemona’s Willow Song, a man sitting near the stage hacked and cleared his throat loudly. Without missing a beat, Muti turned and shot that whole section of the audience a stern look. No one dared to cough in the subsequent “Ave Maria,” the quietest and most tender moment of the opera.  (Of course, there are limits: Muti was unable to silence the Seventh Avenue Subway that rumbled by a few minutes later.)  Throughout, Muti commanded both the musicians’ and the sold-out audience’s attention. 

The same thing took place the next day at the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” (heard in Los Angeles and elsewhere as part of the Met’s Radio Broadcasts.)  The conductor was James Levine, whose presence — like Muti’s — was in doubt a few weeks back due to medical problems.  Perhaps this uncertainty brought out a desire in Levine to prove his critics wrong, or perhaps it roused his musicians to play harder for their ailing leader.  But what matters is the result, and this “Wozzeck” sounded fresher and more immediate to these ears than one Levine conducted 10 years ago.

There was more snap in the pace and the climax of the opera, a blooming blast of orchestral dissonance between the two final scenes had a luster like never before.  (Also aiding the performance was a soaring vocal and dramatic turn by soprano Waltraud Meier.)

Jameslevine1 Levine, at 67, did not take the stage for a bow at curtain call. Muti is 69.  Both have missed much of their scheduled seasons due to health problems. But at these performances, their decades of musical experience made it clear why the players and managements of the Met and CSO want them on the podium.

One of the real signs these performances were special was the other musicians spotted in the audience — opera star Bryn Terfel and Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon attended both.  Reached in New York, Conlon said that he has heard Levine conduct “Wozzeck” countless times since 1974, but this week’s performance “will remain in my memory as the zenith.”  He added that watching Muti and the CSO reminded him of seeing Georg Solti and the same orchestra 40 years ago. 

For one conductor to spend his week off at the concert hall is quite a compliment; but Conlon went further: “I was inspired by two great conductors at the pinnacle of their interpretive form.”

-- James C. Taylor

Photos, from top: Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last Friday, Associated Press/Carnegie Hall; Boston Symphony music director James Levine conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the 2010 season's opening night last October,  Associated Press / Josh Reynolds/Boston Symphony Orchestra