Chicago to Moscow

Two stunning ‘superpower’ orchestras at the Musikverein

Ricardo Muti directs the Chicago Symphony Orchestra | Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Cynthia Yeh is the principle percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Petit and powerful, what a symbol for women’s liberation! With three brisk shakes of the maracas, she opened the Musikverein’s 200th concert season at the beginning of September: Two memorable evenings of the Chicago Symphony under Riccardo Muti.

The Chicago is one of the “Big Five” in the U.S. – five orchestras, that is. Brought to international fame by Georg Solti in the 1970s, I grew up on their recordings and still listen with relish to an old CSO LP I have of Dvořák’s New World. There is a crisp brass and woodwind sound you never get tired of. Despite the lushness of the Vienna Phil’s strings, I do love an American orchestra.

Muti is now in his second season as the Chicago’s music director and seems still to be on honeymoon. He will be staying in the windy city with “his” orchestra about 8 weeks a year. This is clearly a combination of greats. But, if truth be told, I came for the orchestra. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Muti’s association with the CSO is still too young to have made much of a difference.

The swish of maracas began British composer Bertrand Rand’s Danza Petrificada, composed for the 2010 Mexican independence centenary under commission from the CSO. Unfortunately, it seemed like a throw-away contemporary hors d’oeuvre. While Ms. Yeh seemed hopeful, tossing in her maracas between trumpet fanfares, it took awhile for the rest of the mariachi band to show up. When it finally came, the piece seemed about to go somewhere. But after a sudden three-second fortissimo it was over. Too bad. A token eight-minute piece by a token “composer in residence”? That’s unfair to composer, orchestra and audience alike. There is great orchestral music being composed today. How about the Danzóns by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez to flaunt an orchestra from the New World?

Be that as it may, the rest of Muti’s programming was great for showing off, but also heavy and Russian: From Richard Strauss and Hindemith, to Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration was dense and thick. The 1889 piece has moments of beauty, but much seems to straddle between late Romanticism and the search for the modern, without being either place. Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat was similarly unconvincing. It was composed in 1940 in America, where Hindemith had emigrated after his music was degraded to “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) by the Nazis. Still today, Hindemith enjoys quite a bit of popularity in the U.S. A prolific composer and a dedicated pedagogue, he composed a solo piece for almost every instrument of the orchestra. The Symphony utilizes this intimate instrumental knowledge, and contains idiomatic solos for almost everyone. It was great for proving that the CSO has a virtuoso in every section. However, for me, Hindemith’s musical language, full of fourths, always seems nebulous and sexless: Like an androgynous being, it wanders and never seems to be in a particular key. Indeed, it wasn’t clear that the orchestra enjoyed it, and Muti remained cool.

And the orchestra was loud. Too loud. Maybe they are used to playing in much bigger halls, maybe audiences in the U.S. need more punch and less subtlety. In any case, it was too much for the Musikverein.

But everything was redeemed with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite. The orchestra woke up and Muti came alive. The piece also dates to 1940, but what a difference! From the first deep, heart-wrenching chord of the beginning, the orchestra’s virtuosity was for art’s sake, not for glory. And I heard again that resounding Chicago brass that had gripped me as a child. Loud, but brilliant.

There’s an odd problem in Vienna. The programming seems curiously un-coordinated. And often, when it rains it pours. At the opening concert, the CSO performed Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Less than three weeks later, the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, under Vladimir Fedosejev, played the same piece in the same hall. Why? To hear which “superpower” can do it better?

The Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony is another great orchestra of the world. And Fedosejev, who will be 80 next year, has been their conductor for 36 years. Now this is no longer a honeymoon. It is an intimate relationship that has created an unmistakable sound. Fedosejev speaks exactly the same language as his orchestra. And he has been talking to them so long, there is no need for any exaggerated gestures: The orchestra understands a whisper, a breath.

And they understand their Russian composers. The three concerts at the Musikverein each began with a Tchaikovsky concerto and ended with a Shostakovich symphony. As if to say: “This is how it’s done.”

It was clear from the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto that the first concert was going to be an evening of shivers down my back. The soloist Arabella Steinbacher was riveting: Young, gorgeous and absolutely virtuosic, like a reincarnation of Anne-Sophie Mutter. But even more spellbinding were the Russian strings. The tautness of the sound was like a tiger ready to pounce.

How is it done? A faster vibrato, a closer attack to the string, a bit more pressure adding a more intense edge to the tone?

In any case, there was absolute homogeneity to their style of playing: The Russian violin school created them all, just as it formed those formidable violinists Heifetz, Elman and Milstein. From violins to basses, the orchestra’s strings marched in like a well-disciplined force and played like gods.

So which superpower got the Shostakovich right? Both. The CSO brought the symphony’s harmonic agitation a great clarity, and the woodwinds and brass were invincible. But Fedosejev understood the significance of the music, and its language flows in the veins of his orchestra. I was moved from beginning to end.

Another member of the Big Five, the Cleveland Orchestra, will be here at the end of Oct. and the beginning of Nov., with their Austrian music director, Franz Welser-Möst. There are more than a couple of centuries covered in the programming, from Mozart to John Adams. Let’s hear how this New World orchestra sounds.

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