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March 2014
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Muti Sculpts a Symphony

Riccardo Muti c.Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti c.Todd Rosenberg

It isn’t a concert, but the music is thrilling. This week the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited an audience of seniors to attend a rehearsal with Maestro Muti and the orchestra.

In some arenas, pulling back the proverbial curtain is about as magical as Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz. When it comes to rehearsals with the Chicago Symphony and music director Riccardo Muti, this is not the case. First of all, one has to marvel at the preparedness of everyone involved. Secondly, with every refinement that’s made in the rehearsal process, it’s an “aha” moment for everyone lucky enough to witness it. A masterpiece comes sharper into focus, calling attention to the little miracles throughout a work.

WFMT’s Carl Grapentine, who is giving the pre-concert lectures for this week’s CSO performances, notes that Schubert never heard his symphonies played in concert. It was Robert Schumann who went rummaging through piles of belongings, at the invitation of the deceased Schubert’s brother, and discovered the unpublished manuscript of the C Major Symphony.

Riccardo Muti stated, “When you hear the music of Schubert, you go home enriched.”

Muti reheares the CSO

Muti reheares the CSO, c. Todd Rosenberg

Imagine the awe Schumann must have felt at the treasure in his hands. With the brother’s blessing, Schumann took the manuscript to his friend Felix Mendelssohn who performed it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann called it the “greatest instrumental work since the death of Beethoven.”

From the outset, the Chicago Symphony’s rehearsal of the Great C Major Symphony shows sensitivity to the individual personality of the composer. It’s understood that the lush, gushy sounds of Wagner or Strauss would not do justice to Schubert. The rehearsal is an interesting give and take between conductor and musicians. This is a majestic symphony in the hands of a powerful orchestra: even their professional restraint can give way to the moment, but the maestro is quick to rein them in, crouching below his music stand. The orchestra backs off. Out of that delicacy, out of the pianissimos and the slight separation from one note to the next, the wondrous details of Schubert’s invention unfolds.

Riccardo Muti is very efficient in rehearsal – also the orchestra knows what it’s doing. Mr. Muti rarely has to stop the orchestra in order to adjust something. Instead, he anticipates what he wants, relaying it to the players through a vast vocabulary of gestures – leaning into the second violins to produce a swell or beating furiously at the cellos to produce agitation. Sometimes he’ll sing with them as they play, giving them the exact articulation desired. Once they’ve got it, Maestro Muti doesn’t have to work as hard; in fact, he’s generally more animated in rehearsal (it really isn’t for show).

At the rehearsal, between movements, Maestro Muti makes some remarks about articulation to concertmaster Robert Chen. Five minutes into the next movement, Chen’s violin section plays those bars accordingly. Chen glances up. The maestro nods his approval, and the music plays on.

CSO principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson

CSO principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, c. Todd Rosenberg

One notable development: Chicago Symphony Principal Clarinetist Stephen Williamson is back in his chair. He had taken a leave of absence from the orchestra to assume the position of principal with the New York Philharmonic. Ultimately, Mr. Williamson decided Chicago was the place for him.

He has been much admired for his musicality, particularly in tandem with CSO Principal Oboe Eugene Isotov. Earlier in their careers, the two worked together as principals in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

The Chicago Symphony plays Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony and the Schumann Piano Concerto with soloist Mitsuko Uchida this weekend. Carl Grapentine’s pre-concert lectures commence one hour before the concert. Look for these performances in the coming months on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Radio Broadcasts on WFMT.


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