Muti, Chicago Symphony bring magnificent Beethoven to West Palm Beach

February 28, 2019
By David Fleshler
Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Anne Ryan

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Anne Ryan

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s magnificent concert Tuesday night in West Palm Beach showed audiences the difference between a good orchestra and a great one.

Under music director Riccardo Muti, the orchestra gave a concert at the Kravis Center that is sure to rank with the season’s best—a memorable evening of classics by a virtuoso orchestra before an audience that was clearly absorbed in the performance.

In its sheer sound, the orchestra exceeded high expectations, with the gorgeous sheen of its strings, lively yet sensitively phrased wind playing and the oak-aged whiskey tone of its famous brass section.

Looking at the program, regular concertgoers might have yawned: three of the most popular Beethoven works in the repertory, the Leonore Overture No. 3, Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7.

Under Muti, however, the orchestra played with such gripping power that the familiar music emerged uncommonly fresh and recovered much of their original elemental force.

A standard performance of orchestral Beethoven provides lots of abrupt crescendos and fortissimo climaxes, with the music lurching from high point to high point. But this performance was patrician Beethoven, with Classical grandeur and intensity of focus that ultimately generated more power than mere raucous thunderblasts of typical performances.

Muti approached these works with a fine and nuanced sense of music drama. Rarely will these soft sections— especially the quiet passages in clarinet, bassoon or other combinations—carry such rumbling, understated power. When climaxes came, they were all the more effective for emerging organically from the music.

The concert opened with the Leonore Overture No. 3. From the opening, with soft descending patterns, the orchestra’s strength was apparent. The quiet notes filled the hall, creating a sense of expectation and impending violence. Violins were clear and bright and almost preternaturally taut in fast passages. Throughout, there were finely wrought details—glints of brass melodies, an ominous melody in winds, a brief flute solo from principal Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, rendered with sweet tone and vivacious phrasing.

For Beethoven’s Fifth, Muti walked on stage, took a brisk bow, then turned and silenced the remaining applause with the symphony’s gruff opening notes. This was also a tightly controlled performance, with a tone of grim formality, as Muti allowed the orchestra to play at full power only at rare moments.

After the brief oboe cadenza, the orchestra descended to a cavernous pianissimo from which it generated a ferocious, grinding crescendo. The last minutes of the movement were pure excitement, with sharply articulated string playing as the music lurched toward its climactic, abrupt end.

In the Andante, the sense of Classical restraint was even more apparent. At one point in a minor-key section, the music reached a climax where the violins enter. In typical performances, the violins hit hard, with a blaring tone. But in this performance, they slid more softly into the ensemble, less abrupt but with searing force.

The work’s transition to the final movement is one of Beethoven’s most striking passages, where the Scherzo’s murky, sinister tones give way to sunlight. Under Muti, this passage emphasized pulsing cellos and basses, giving the storm clouds an even darker hue before they parted for the ensuing, hard-earned jubilation.

Photo: Anne Ryan

Photo: Anne Ryan

The performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony sounded altogether different. Where the Fifth felt tightly coiled, the Seventh felt light and unrestrained.

The opening Vivace was pure buoyancy, as scales ascended lightly. There was another distinguished flute solo from Höskuldsson, and a visceral thump of brass and timpani. The main theme in the full orchestra was joyous. A minor-key melody moved smoothly from one wind instrument to the next, making way for a tremendous, climactic buildup.

The Allegretto, one of Beethoven’s most famous symphonic movements, opened with a long, finely paced crescendo, as the ominous theme grew in power. When the violins enter high, they usually crash down, but again, they entered here in a subtler, ultimately more effective, manner.

The concluding Allegro was taken at a fast pace. But the emphatic phrasing kept the whirling phrases from losing shape. Strings played with razor-sharp precision as they zoomed through the final pages of the work.

The Kravis audience was fully absorbed, listening raptly and unusually quiet, with few instances of coughing or rustling programs (except, unfortunately, at the start of the Allegretto in the Seventh).

“It’s not every day you hear a great orchestra in this hall,” Muti said with a smile, as he introduced the encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1. This bonus showed off the luxuriant sound of the orchestra’s string section, after the taut restraint of Beethoven, with lots of Magyar character and a touch of humor from Muti, as he playfully stretched out the melody.

If ever there were an occasion for a great orchestra to mail in a concert, it would be a short tour of Florida playing classics they’ve played many times before. But these musicians didn’t make it to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with that sort of approach to music-making, and they played with focus and clear intensity of purpose. During the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, concertmaster Robert Chen could be seen tearing away strands of bow hair he broke in the excitement of the performance.


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