“Bedeckt mich mit Blumen,” goes a famous song: “Cover me with flowers.” Carnegie Hall was so covered last night, and so was at least one woman, in a long, spectacular gown (with matching headdress). It was the opening night of the season. On the stage was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti, its music director.
Did I say “music director”? Beginning with this season, Mr. Muti is now the orchestra’s “music director emeritus for life.”
The program had two works and no intermission. I imagine that gala-goers had a gala dinner to get to. Those two works were chestnuts: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky).
Let me jot a footnote, here toward the top. The New York Philharmonic begins its season with the national anthem. So does the Metropolitan Opera. I have long thought that Carnegie Hall should participate in this tradition too. I would have liked to hear the anthem, from this orchestra and this conductor.
The Tchaikovsky concerto started smart, unlabored, and unfussy. And not heavy. Muti knows that this music must not be weighed down. There is a transparency about it, really. And Muti honored this quality. You could have written down virtually every note of the score, on hearing the CSO.
Our soloist was Leonidas Kavakos, who is an excellent violinist (and a good conductor). He did not have his best outing. He did not lay an egg. But he did not show himself to best effect.
He struggled with intonation. Hearing off-center notes is like drinking sour milk. His rubato was often curious. In my judgment, it often halted the momentum of the music. Sometimes, Kavakos seemed to be feeling his way through, rather than truly “possessing” the piece.
Tchaikovsky loves woodwinds, and, in this concerto, woodwinds are something like assistant soloists. The CSO is known for brass. But, based on this performance, it ought to be known for woodwinds, too.
The Finale had slancio, fortunately—it had brio, rigor, and dash. But violinist and orchestra were not always in coordination. Also, the violin playing fell into routine, I thought—some sawing. The final measures were strictly in time, which was gratifying.
Now to our exhibition—our pictures. Riccardo Muti is an interesting fellow. He is known as a glamorous, charismatic conductor. That he is. But he is exceptionally unshowy on the podium. He goes about his business, and the composer’s business. He wastes nothing. He is an “honest” musician, as an old teacher of mine would say.
Playing the role of Bud Herseth was Esteban Batallán, the Chicagoans’ principal trumpet. (Adolph “Bud” Herseth was the principal trumpet in this orchestra from 1948 to 2001. He was one of the best-known orchestral musicians in America.) Batallán played beautifully, and he also played out. What I mean is, he was bold. Some trumpeters are mellow and subdued in Pictures. Batallán let the sound ring out, throughout the hall.
In several movements—pictures, if you like—the orchestra was rich and grand. The music was stately but not static. Unison playing in the strings was exemplary. Overall, the orchestra gave us a “sonic bath.”
What are my complaints? They are few. I like my chicks—in “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells”—a little more manic. But “Baba Yaga” had its elegant ferocity. And “The Great Gate of Kiev” had two virtues, at least: it was not slow and not ponderous.
Let me now offer some footnotes in their proper place: at the foot of the article.
Sitting in Carnegie Hall last night, I reflected that I first knew Pictures at an Exhibition as a piano piece. Many of us owned the Horowitz record, and we wore the grooves off. I have not heard Pictures on the piano in a long, long time. The last time, I think, was when Vladimir Feltsman tackled it (in Carnegie Hall, as it happens).
My impression is, the world thinks of Pictures as an orchestra piece. Last night, the CSO played it in the Ravel orchestration.
Many of us have a yearly pattern. We hear the last Carnegie Hall concert of the season in late May or early June. Then, in the summer months, we are in other halls, perhaps abroad. We return to Carnegie Hall in October. And the acoustics are shocking—shockingly good. (Granted, it helps to have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra do the playing.) One can forget, in the months off.
Above, I described the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Pictures at an Exhibition as “chestnuts.” Gala favorites. That is too glib. They are great works. Think of the first-timers—people hearing one or both of those works for the first time. Can you imagine the thrill?
Putin’s Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. That was a Thursday. On Sunday morning, an organist here in New York ended a church service with “The Great Gate of Kiev.” It was his way of expressing solidarity with those under assault. I’m not sure I have ever been more moved.