By Dennis Polkow
Conducting his first Symphony Center concert as the tenth music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last Thursday, September 23, Riccardo Muti received more applause, cheers and accolades just for showing his face than his predecessor Daniel Barenboim used to receive for showing his stuff.
Indeed, you would have to go back to the heyday of the CSO glory years under Sir Georg Solti some three decades ago to encounter a comparable reception or experience such a solid marriage of conductor and orchestra.
The program—repeated through Tuesday, September 28—was a curious mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar: an all-Berlioz program that opened with his iconic “Symphonie fantastique” followed by its rarely performed sequel, “Lélio, or the Return to Life,” conceived to immediately follow “fantastique,” though those wishes are rarely respected today. (While barely a season or two goes by that the CSO has not performed “fantastique,” “Lélio” was being given its first-ever CSO performance on this occasion.) Muti had time-tested this pairing at concerts in Salzburg and Paris, even releasing a recording and DVD of performances in Europe with the same narrator that was used here, French actor Gérard Depardieu.
Performed together, the two works form a whole that its creator called “Episodes in the Life of an Artist” and offer an illuminating look at the creative world of Berlioz, one of the most original and innovative composers of the Romantic era. The inspiration was the Irish Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson, with whom Berlioz had become obsessed with during her portrayals of Ophelia, Juliet and Desdemona and directed himself toward attracting her attention through his musical activities. (At that point Smithson was quite famous; Berlioz was as yet unknown.)
Smithson became the “heroine” of the “Symphonie fantastique,” represented by Berlioz’ famous “idée fixe,” the forerunner to Wagner’s leitmotiv. That recurring musical theme represents the obsession of the work’s central “character,” a composer/artist—Berlioz himself—who through an opium-induced dream imagines himself at a ball with her (second movement), who pines for her out in the country (third movement), who is about to be executed at the guillotine for murdering her (fourth movement), and who, after death, sees her as the High Priestess in a hellish vision of a Witches’ Sabbath (finale).
This was such abstract and avant-garde music in its time that it was not initially well-received and Smithson herself knew nothing of the event nor of her secret admirer. Berlioz therefore penned “Lélio” and planned to present both parts in sequence at a public concert and through the efforts of a friend, Smithson was given a ticket, and did end up at that concert, totally unaware that she was fixation and subject of both works.
It was during “Lélio” that she realized that the speaker of the work was referring to her when he cried, “Oh, if only I could find her, the Juliet, the Ophelia whom my heart cries out for!” The concert was a huge triumph for Berlioz in that not only was his fame instantaneous with a Parisian public able to embrace the wordy “Lélio” in a way that they could not embrace the wordless “fantastique” by itself, but Berlioz and Smithson met the next day, and were married the following fall.
Yet there is another sequel and an unplanned irony: having both fallen in love with stage characters rather than real people, the happy couple became totally miserable within a few years and were ultimately separated. A further irony is that “Lélio,” the work that established Berlioz and which brought them together, is virtually unknown today, while the initial work that escaped both the attention of Smithson and Paris, his “Symphonie fantastique,” is now known and performed in every corner of the globe.
Muti had hoped that the juxtaposition of the two pieces presented as the composer had originally intended would make a compelling case for the restoration of the two-part “Episodes in the Life of an Artist” to the repertoire, and convinced the CSO to spend an enormous amount of money to erect theatrical lighting and a screen that would move up and down according to Berlioz’ wishes.
Thus, after a stunning performance of “fantastique” where Berlioz’ familiar score was given such extraordinary attention to color, nuance and detail—including a finale where guest principal clarinetist Alessandro Carbonare, principal clarinetist of Rome’s Orchestra di Santa Cecilia, nearly stole the show—the screen was lowered into place, Muti, the orchestra, soloists and chorus left in the dark while Depardieu came onstage from the back of the hall, sputtering Berlioz’ obsessively chatty narration unamplified in its original French with subtitles.
When the music itself would emerge in and out of the narrative were the moments that were most effective of the evening, but there was a larger irony that Muti did not foresee: the unique circumstances of a concert where an orchestra that had been running rudderless without a music director for so long was at long last being restored to a former glory with his own new presence. That gave the spoken finale an unintended twist as the narrator congratulates the conductor and the orchestra for their ability to interpret such a work with precision, and that with practice, they could begin to master works of greater depth. That irony was extreme enough for the audience to actually laugh out loud at these remarks, dashing Muti’s hopes that the piece’s haunting finale where the heart of the artist is destroyed would leave the audience here as spellbound and speechless as it had in other cities where Muti had performed these pieces together.
One suspects that Muti’s plan for this second week of concerts, which are to juxtapose familiar Haydn and Mozart symphonies with unfamiliar Haydn and Mozart symphonies that have never been performed by the CSO, will go off more effectively and laughter-free, as there is no narrator.
At press time on Monday, September 27, Muti was scheduled to be taking that day off from his CSO schedule to present a concert at a prison in far-west-suburban Warrenville. Describing a similar visit to a prison in Milan last February, Muti noted being “impressed by the fact that many of these people had faces so pure, so innocent, they could be your son, your daughter.” On that occasion Muti played Schumann’s “Warum?” [“Why?”] “because I could not ask the reason directly why they were there, so with music, I put the question, and I went on with Chopin, Schubert and Schumann, all composers that died young, or relatively young, and suffered a great deal in their lives.
“And they were so taken, so involved, with a constant smile on their faces. This two hours of music for them was a moment of spiritual freedom. In fact, they wrote to me afterwards and said, ‘Maestro, please come back: you gave us two hours of dreams and paradise.’ So, this is something that we have to do here, too. Now is the time for not only a celebration of great musicians in the orchestra and a new maestro on the podium in tails, and all of this ceremony that has gone on for 200 years now, but it will be a ceremony and celebration because we also have to do something for the community of Chicago, for those whose circumstances prevent them from coming to the concert hall.”
Riccardo Muti conducts Haydn Symphonies No. 39 and 89 and Mozart Symphonies No. 25 and 34 September 30-October 5 and conducts Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture (aka “The Lone Ranger” Theme), Liszt’s “Les preludes” (indoors, this time) and the Beethoven Violin Concerto with German superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter at the Symphony Ball at 7pm October 2. Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000.