Ah, the usual dilemma of first impressions.
How you dress for a first date? The kind of car you drive, the restaurant you choose. Flashy or subdued? Obviously the aggressive, flashy Type A men make radically different choices from the more shy, modest Type B's.
With conductors it's exactly the same thing. Especially when they have to woo a new audience that's not familiar with them. Some start slowly, relaxed, because mellow goes a long way. Others, not so much.
If his temperament as a conductor is any indication, Riccardo Muti is clearly the kind of guy who'd show up at a first date in a bespoke Italian suit, handmade shoes, perfectly coiffed hair, designer tie, gold watch. Driving a vintage Ferrari over to a three-star restaurant where the Cristal flows freely.
Because, musically, that's exactly what he did Thursday in Chicago: Riccardo Muti, that old wily fox, in Chicago for his de facto debut as Emperor of the CSO (even though his term officially begins next year) instead of giving the audience a nice, quiet, meditative example of his talent -- he could have chosen to conduct the sweet Haffner, or the stately Jupiter, and why not a serene Pastorale? -- instead went for the really heavy artillery.
For his official first date with Chicago audiences he has chosen Verdi's Requiem, an already disturbing work that under his baton turns even more into a dark, wondrous, deeply unsettling, at times almost unbearably intense meditation on God's silence and humanity's loneliness.
Muti's in town for three performances that sold out months ago; and Thursday night the debut was big success with the long ovations at the end, and it really, really, really rawked the Chicago Tribune's John Von Rhein's socks.
A few choice JVR quotes:
His rapport with them and the vocal soloists was immediate, his pacing infallible, his control magisterial.
The thunderous ovation that greeted Muti and his magnificent forces at the end was something to behold, capping an occasion that will linger in memory. There will be a final performance Saturday, but, like the others, it has been sold out for months. Fortunately a live recording will be released on the CSO Resound label.
Now that Muti has had his triumphant inauguration, it's Barack Obama's turn.
Shorter Von Rhein: Hold on to your hats, Chicago.
What about Andrew Patner in the Sun Times? Let's see what he has to say:
The CSO played on the edge of its collective seat throughout. Concertmaster Robert Chen leading the violins from tender melodies through impossible tremolos.
When has the CSO Chorus sounded like this? Not since founder Margaret Hillis at her peak. Some 170 voices singing as one, powered from the bottom ranges, standing and delivering on cue with equal parts passion and precision and investing the softest passages with the greatest musicality. Muti hand-picked his quartet of a Milanese, a Greek and two Russians. Each of them, from the formidable mezzo Olga Borodina to the up and coming tenor Mario Zeffiri and bass Ildar Abdrazakov to Muti favorite soprano Barbara Frittoli was there only for the music -- solos were for Verdi, not the rafters, and I have never heard such a conversational, meditative, and balanced quartet.
Muti may not be able to top this ne plus ultra in the coming years, but we know now for sure what his standards are and how he is able to meet them.