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November 23, 2009

Riccardo Muti leads New York Philharmonic in DC concert

riccardo mutiNobody 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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:14 AM | | Comments (3)


I believe that beautiful viola solo was inspired by a tenor EE heard singing the melody on a deserted platform in Naples train station. If those platforms are ever deserted that is!

Thanks for that charming insight. TIM

Though somewhat off the path of this blog subject, you might find one pot-stirring comment about Gilbert and the NYP of interest in this comment thread, where the person takes a shot at Gilbert and his relationship with the NYP. He also gets in shots at Marin Alsop and David Robertson as well.

That's a lot of shooting. TS

I listened the same program yesterday, and I found Prokofiev amazing. It has been my best Romeo and Julietta ever (except for the time Nureyev danced at the Paris Opera, but that time the factor was not the music...). I found the orchestra fully engaged and he was creative and playful. Maybe they learned from what happened on Saturday... Still there were public who disagree and left as soon as he dropped his baton.

Thanks very much for the report. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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