Riccardo Muti leads New York Philharmonic in DC concert
Nobody fits the description of aristocratic conductor better than Riccardo Muti. If all he had going for him was height, classic Italian features and fab hair, he'd probably still be a major global star.
The Neapolitan Muti, of course, has all the extra ingredients, too -- superb technique, deeply considered interpretive ideas, charisma that inspires players and audiences alike. You can disagree with some of his choices (I think his tendency to ban unwritten high notes in opera can be a bit severe), but still be enormously impressed.
It's no wonder the New York Philharmonic wooed Muti intensely for the music director post (he demurred, and will take the helm of the Chicago Symphony next year instead), and it's no wonder that the orchestra plays very well for him when he graces the podium as a guest. Such was the case Sunday afternoon as Muti and the New Yorkers made some splendid music together at the Kennedy Center in a rich program presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.
The Philharmonic has been in superb shape lately. Even Lorin Maazel's severest critics will grant that he did some wonderful fine-tuning of the ensemble during his tenure; his successor, Alan Gilbert, has been building on that quality (as I got to experience during my last New York visit).
Muti drew on all of the orchestra's considerable strengths to deliver a gang-buster account of
Liszt's "Les Preludes" at the start of the program. Having just heard that composer's "Totentanz" the night before at the Baltimore Symphony, I was struck again by how much great stuff there really is in even the most blatant of Liszt's works. It's fashionable in some quarters to trash Liszt as an empty hack, but I'll never understand that sort of thinking. Liszt cut a unique path that got right to the heart of Romanticism early on, and he clearly exerted an enormous influence on many others.
"Les Preludes" is brilliantly constructed, superbly orchestrated -- and awfully entertaining. Muti had the piece sounding very fresh and forward-looking (you could easily get a foretaste of Wagner's "Siegfried" in some of the woodwind-shaded passages). The playing was not just technically sterling, but filled with nuance and character.
Same for the sweeping account of Elgar's "In the South," an eventful musical portrait of Italy that hardly ever turns up in concerts on these shores. Muti ensured that the score's Straussian flurries and imaginatively developed themes emerged in telling detail, and he again had the ensemble responding brilliantly -- lush string tone, myriad shading in the winds, a mix of power and suppleness from the brass. Cynthia Phelps delivered the substantial viola solo with remarkable warmth.
Surprisingly, the excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" that closed the concert proved less consistently impressive. The opening "Monatgues and Capulets" movement, for example, didn't come close to the visceral impact and dramatic contrasts in dynamics that Gergiev and the London Symphony achieved in a performance in the same venue last March. Muti kept the lid on, a restraint that also kept "The Death of Tybalt" from delivering a knock-out punch. And some of the Philharmonic's playing wasn't quite as striking as on the first half of the program; the violins did not summon quite the level of silkiness that can give the ballet's most lyrical passages an ethereal beauty.
That said, there was still much to admire in the performance, and in the obvious connection between Muti and the musicians. The number of smiles I spotted on faces in the orchestra throughout the concert spoke volumes.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO