Last week, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall for two concerts—Friday and Saturday nights. The first concert had Bizet, Berlioz, and Respighi on the program. I will discuss it in my forthcoming “New York chronicle” for the magazine—for the print edition, I mean. How about the second concert?

It was all Prokofiev, and let’s get into it now.

The program was composed of two works: Romeo and Juliet (which is to say, a suite from that ballet) and the Symphony No. 3. In that order? Yes.

I had to ask, and have to ask: Can anything follow Romeo and Juliet, that immortal masterpiece? Sometimes, I leave a good performance from American Ballet Theatre and think, “It’s just the greatest work of art. With apologies to Hamlet and the B Minor Mass, it just is.”

That is in the flush of the moment. But even when I am unflushed, I think that Prokofiev’s R&J is hard to beat. (Another Prokofiev ballet, Cinderella, is not far behind, by the way.)

Conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was its music director, Riccardo Muti. He has lived with Romeo and Juliet for a long time. In 1982, he made a recording of the work—a suite from it—with his then orchestra, the Philadelphia.

The conductor Riccardo Muti. Photo: Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Carnegie Hall.

On Saturday night, R&J was vivid. Now, what do I mean by that? Can one be more specific? Vividness, or vitality, is a matter of rhythm, dynamics, rests, colors, incisiveness—life. You know it when you hear it, I think. The music leaps off the page, into minds and hearts.

I have never heard the section called “The Montagues and the Capulets” more powerful. I’m not talking about volume. I’m talking about feeling, emotion. Blessedly, the music was slow enough.

In fact, the entire suite was blessedly unrushed. A conductor has great freedom in this music with an orchestra on the stage. He does not have to worry about dancers and their needs (as he does in the pit).

You and I could not endorse everything Muti did. For me, there was excessive rubato in “Juliet the Young Girl.” Also, “Romeo and Juliet before Parting” was too expansive (let’s say). And I like “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb” more wrenching—more searing—and less beautifully tragic.

But these are choices—and Muti’s were more than defensible.

After the performance was over, Muti had many principals stand. Virtually all of them. Finally, the entire orchestra stood, and Muti stood beside the principal viola.

If I was reading things correctly, he had a realization: he had forgotten the viola. The two had a nice, friendly laugh about this (again, if I was reading things right).

The conductor Riccardo Muti and the principal viola Li-Kuo Chang. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Did I say Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3? Yes. Where did that come from? As a rule, we hear just three of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies: 1, 5, and 7. But every now and then, someone sneaks one of the other four in. Valery Gergiev, for example, likes to conduct No. 6. He did so with his Mariinsky Orchestra in Carnegie Hall two seasons ago. (For my review, go here.)

Riccardo Muti likes to conduct No. 3. This is sometimes known as the “Fiery Angel Symphony,” for it derives from that Prokofiev opera. Muti recorded it with the Philadelphians in 1991.

If you’re going to advocate an unfamiliar work, you must pour all your intelligence and heart into it. (Of course, one should do the same with familiar works.) Muti certainly does this with the Prokofiev Third. The symphony got a top-notch reading on Saturday night. The orchestra was admirably transparent. Every line, every layer, was clear.

In my notes, I scribbled, “Clarity amid hurly-burly.”

This symphony is brainy, no doubt. It is a smart, smart work from a smart, smart composer. Is it inspired? I’m not sure. I must live with it for a while longer . . .

One more word, before I go. Encores, it seems to me, are out of fashion these days. I could have used an encore on Saturday night. The March from The Love for Three Oranges? The Amoroso from Cinderella? Ah, that’s the ticket.

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