Nearing the last leg of an eleven-city European tour, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra appeared together at the “Golden Hall” of the Musikverein in Vienna, the holy of holies of all concert halls.
Muti has been performing here regularly with the Vienna Philharmonic for over fifty years. He may now be music director emeritus for life back in Chicago, but in Vienna, Muti is an honorary member of the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, an organization founded in 1812 whose past directors have included Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan.
There is always immense curiosity when Muti brings his “other” orchestra to Vienna. Chicago is the only orchestra in North America that is frequently mentioned alongside the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic as being incomparable.
There were two evenings of concerts, the second including a much-anticipated performance of Florence Price’s Third Symphony—much more on that to come in a separate feature—and the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony.
The opening evening began with Philip Glass’ “The Triumph of the Octagon,” a piece that was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and which Glass dedicated to Muti. It had its world premiere last fall in Chicago.
The forces assembled onstage were a midsize string orchestra and winds already seated, so, the preconcert ambiance in the Musikverein was more subdued than what might have been the case with a visiting orchestra on tour. There was no onstage tuning before the piece, which added to the atmosphere.
When Muti walked onstage, there was, of course, an immense ovation, but the Musikverein audience— which knows Muti so well—picked up on the idea that tranquility was the aim so applause quickly dissipated to restore the calm.
Without much of a pause, Muti went right into the Glass piece, leading with small hand gestures. He traversed a transparent pianissimo that, at least to this listener, seemed only possible in such an exquisite acoustic as the Musikverein. Pianissimos have to be diligently worked for in the drier acoustic of Orchestra Hall back in Chicago and Muti thrives on working to get them. But the fullness and richness of the sound at such a daringly quiet dynamic level in the Musikverein was astonishing.
The arpeggios floated through the hall more rounded than the world-premiere performances in Chicago, which had been more cornered. Both approaches are effective but it was hard not to be seduced by the sheer beauty of the sound in Vienna. It certainly made the piece more evocative as it built up in tension and dynamics before easing up so gradually that the pullback was barely noticeable.
“The Triumph of the Octagon” is a short work, but the etherial approach really did give it the sense of being outside of time until abruptly, upon the rise of an ascent that is never fully completed, sounds stop and ambiguity is left hanging in the air.
The low and quiet rumbling of the unison lower strings at the beginning of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite (1919 version) was terrifying in its intensity. It was a physical sensation that was palpable and many audience members looked at each other to confirm the experience with a kind of delight that comes from a shared shiver.
The colors and blends that were created as the Firebird moved about were graceful and nuanced. But when Muti’s baton barely moved and the sonic boom that began the Infernal Dance occurred with such power and clarity, there were audible audience gasps. The raucousness of the punctuated brass—particularly Gene Pokorny’s tuba—was delightfully beyond the pale.
As things calmed down and headed to the finale where the horn introduces the iconic theme that carries to the finale, new principal horn Mark Almond played it with poetic distance and mystery. The ovation was deservedly thunderous at the conclusion.
The second half of the program was given over to “Aus Italien,” an early programmatic work of Richard Strauss suggested by a trip he made to Italy that offers a preview of the brilliance of his later tone poems. In the Musikverein and with Muti so caressingly sculpting the sound, it became a more tantalizing piece than had been heard in Chicago last fall.
Of course, the finale portrayal of Muti’s native Naples is the reason for doing it, with a romp through “Funiculì, Funiculà”—that Strauss thought was an authentic Italian folk song—closing out the piece. (Strauss was successfully sued by the song’s composer Luigi Denza.)
Rather than risk any audible recognition during the concert’s encore, Muti wisely decided to interrupt a long ovation and verbally acknowledged that “2024 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of Giacomo Puccini. So we will play the Intermezzo from ‘Manon Lescaut.’”
The ohs and ahs were then dispatched with what allowed the radiant beauty of the piece to be appreciated without distractions.
After principal cellist John Sharp’s gorgeously lyrical introduction and the full sonority of the strings came in, it was an otherworldly moment sustained for the duration of the piece.
Silence greeted its ending before a buildup of applause—for an electric and electrifying evening—that went on for quite a while before seeming to die away enough that the orchestra started leaving the stage one row at a time.
A persistent group of quick clappers in the distance began to pick up steam to the point where the applause was fully rekindled.
As such, Muti walked out in front of only half of the orchestra still onstage and acknowledged the gesture appreciatively before shaking hands with concertmaster Robert Chen and waving goodbye as he would do in Chicago.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed at Musikverein Wien, Musikvereinsplatz 1, Vienna, Austria, on January 22-23.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: email@example.com