A Hundred Musicians, One Glorious Sound: Chicago’s Grand Band

Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

TORONTO — It had been a long time since the Chicago Symphony played in Toronto. Would you believe 109 years? International orchestras have often made a stop here. I can recall a year when the Boston Symphony (Munch), the New York Philharmonic (Mitropoulos), the Philadelphia Orchestra (Ormandy), and the Leningrad Philharmonic (Mravinsky) all played in Massey Hall.

Virtually all the top orchestras have played here over the years but none at all during the pandemic. And the costs of touring have gone up so much that a consensus settled in that large orchestra tours might be drastically limited in the future. But Mervon Mehta, executive director, performing arts, at Koerner Hall, is out to defy the trends. Not only did he invite the CSO for two concerts (Feb. 1 and 2), but he announced that this would be the first installment in a new International Orchestra series at the hall.

The CSO is well known in Toronto on the strength of its reputation and its many near-legendary recordings. The Fritz Reiner era (1953-63) has been well-documented by RCA (RCA 88883701982). Equally fine are the many recordings made by Decca when Georg Solti was music director (1969-1991). For me, the best documentation of what Solti and the CSO could do together is a set of 4 DVDs with music by Wagner, Bruckner, Rossini, and others (Decca 074 3203).

In the Solti years, the brass section rose to prominence as the finest anywhere, with sections headed by Adolph Herseth (trumpet), Jay Friedman (trombone), and Dale Clevenger (horn). But after listening to Riccardo Muti and the CSO play Prokofiev and the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition in Toronto, I would have to say that the brass have not lost a step. In 2023, the trumpet section is now led by Esteban Batallán and the horns by David Cooper, but — and are you ready for this? — at the age of 83, Friedman still heads the trombone section.

The Chicago Symphony and Riccardo Muti at Koerner Hall in Toronto.

Rather than 100 superb individual musicians comprising today’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under its music director the orchestra is a music-making ensemble par excellence. Muti has headed the orchestra since 2010 and will relinquish his post at the end of this season. At the age of 81, Muti has surely earned the right to cut back a little, but on the basis of what I saw and heard, he hasn’t lost a step, either. He was energetic, inspired, and totally in command.

The first concert was devoted to just two pieces: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The Beethoven was given a traditional reading, meaning that there was no attempt to adopt historically informed practices with respect to tempo, vibrato, bowing, or instrumentation. But there was nothing routine about it. Accents were strong and tension never flagged. The slow movement was interesting in being somewhat faster than many conductors in the “tradition,” perhaps, of Toscanini. In some hands, this movement is made to sound lugubrious, even funereal. Not so for Muti ,and the overall effect was entirely convincing. The final movement was taken “Allegro con brio”, as marked in the score, rather than the all too common “Prestissimo” adopted by many conductors today. Muti and the CSO offered plenty of excitement at a more moderate tempo, with fearless horns and timpani at the end.

Muti has never been a fan of contemporary music, so it was not surprising that he didn’t offer any during his Toronto visit. In fact, the most “modern” music presented was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony from 1944. So be it. Let the younger generation handle the music of our time. What Muti knows and loves, and conducts so well, is plenty good enough.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 abounds in colorful orchestration and shattering climaxes. But what lingers in my memory from this performance is the sheer energy and joy, especially in the scherzo movement. I won’t soon forget either the beauty of the four-part cello episode at the beginning of the last movement. 

After the Prokofiev, the capacity audience demanded an encore, and got one. And it too was unforgettable: the Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut. This is heart-breaking music, and Muti knows just how to bring out its aching sadness. A reminder that for all his expertise in the concert repertoire, Muti headed La Scala for nearly 20 years and is perhaps the greatest Italian opera conductor alive.

At the second concert, the entire first half was devoted to Beethoven: the Coriolan Overture followed by the Eighth Symphony. The whiplash chords that begin Coriolan were remarkably precise and rich and full at the same time. The lyrical second theme seemed to float on air. Muti captured the drama of the piece without overdoing it.

The symphony was played well, too, but perhaps here Muti might have gone too far. Accents, especially from the timpani, sometimes sounded too much like special effects. But one is not likely to hear the Trio section of the Menuet more beautifully played. Wonderful horns and clarinet, perfectly balanced and blended. On the other hand, the last movement sounded a little slow to my ears, and less joyful than it can be.

Muti’s tenure with the Chicago Symphony ends in June.

After intermission came Anatol Lyadov’s rarely-heard The Enchanted Lake. Lyadov wrote mainly miniatures for the piano, but in this lovely impressionist piece from 1909, he suggested a new direction for Russian music. He was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and numbered Prokofiev among his students, but he himself never achieved anything like the prominence of either one.

The Lyadov proved to be a welcome introduction to a staple of the repertoire — a remarkably successful French realization of a Russian piano suite, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. For me, this was the highlight of the two concerts, and perhaps the finest performance I have ever heard of this popular piece.

Trumpeter Estabán Batallan led off with a supremely confident opening Promenade and was just as impressive in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” And the unanimity of the strings in the rapid passages of “Gnomus” had to be heard to be believed. But apart from the virtuosity of the playing, what struck me again and again was the freshness of the interpretation. Everything was new again in this old favorite. In “Bydlo,” Muti opted for a slower-than-usual tempo that gave the music a mournfulness that was both moving and menacing, especially as the climax approached with a thrilling snare drum and a perfectly executed crescendo, from a real pianissimo to a full-throated triple forte. And “The Great Gate of Kiev” was awesome in its majesty, with brass in full cry and tam-tam and bells shaking the rafters of Koerner Hall. One was inevitably overcome by the power of the music, but what made the experience even greater was the care with which Muti perfectly balanced every chord in the final climactic sequence.

As he did on the first night, Muti obliged with an encore, and again it was taken from an Italian opera. In his spoken introduction, Muti had some fun with the audience, assuming — rightly, I would guess — that few of them had ever heard of the opera Fedora. Muti and the CSO gave an exquisite performance of the Intermezzo.

One of the notable features of these two CSO concerts in Toronto was the fact that they took place in Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music. When symphony orchestras visit Toronto, they invariably play in Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony. The acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall were disastrous when it opened in 1982, but they have been improved over the years. Roy Thomson has about 2,600 seats, whereas Koerner Hall, with a European shoebox design, has only about 1,100. This makes it even smaller than the most celebrated of all shoebox halls, Vienna’s Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic, with about 1,700 seats. The CSO was a little cramped on the Koerner Hall stage, but the players seemed to manage, even with lots of extra percussion added for the Prokofiev and Mussorgsky-Ravel, and a piano as well in the Prokofiev.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra onstage at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

But the most important questions were these: Would this small hall be able to handle the sheer volume put out by a large orchestra? And what about the quality of the sound? From where I was sitting in row “N” on the ground floor, the hall emerged with flying colors on both counts. I was worried when I heard the tuba player warming up before the concert. His sound was huge, even frightening. But in the enormous climaxes in the Prokofiev and the Mussorgsky-Ravel, there was plenty of presence but no distortion of any kind.

Elsewhere, one marveled at the beauty of tone from all sections of the orchestra. Timbres seemed just right, no matter who was playing. Koerner Hall was opened in 2009 and right away it was recognized as having wonderful acoustics for recitals and chamber music. While the Royal Conservatory Orchestra plays regularly in Koerner Hall, with these two concerts by a world-class orchestra one can now safely say that Koerner Hall is the venue of choice in Toronto for visiting ensembles of any size.

Muti has been around a long time, and I have had the pleasure of seeing him many times, with different orchestras and in different cities. In my experience, Muti has never been better than he was at these two concerts with the CSO in Toronto. He is a man with a great sense of humor who loves to tell stories. But once he turns to face the orchestra and give the downbeat, he is all business and a truly commanding figure. He puts on a “game face” that recalls Toscanini. As one former NBC Symphony player under Toscanini once told me, “When you look at that face and those  penetrating eyes, you dare not play, and play as if your life depended on it.” So too with Muti.

And again like Toscanini, his conducting technique is both economical and exemplary. There is never any doubt about the beat, and there is never a wasted movement. And the independence of his hands and arms is remarkable. Most conductors are mostly conducting with their right arm and either duplicating movements with the left arm or making vague gestures relating to expression. With Muti there is no duplication. If the left arm has nothing of importance to do it hangs by his side. When it is called into service it is for very precise indications of phrasing and, especially, rhythm. And when he beats out those rhythms with his left hand, more often than not, one hears a supercharged response. From time to time, Muti brings into play another item from his toolbox. Watch out for that left leg lifting off the podium. That means a climax of gigantic proportions. But the ultimate gesture, reserved for apocalyptic outbursts, is both arms raised over his head.

Muti’s conducting technique is the product of an exceptional gift for conveying instructions and information through physical gestures, training and discipline, and vast experience. But what also makes him a great conductor is profound insight into the music he conducts from Mozart and Schubert through Bruckner, Verdi, Puccini, Mahler, and Shostakovich. And a mind that enables him to coax the best out of his musicians in rehearsal.

In June, Muti will bid farewell to Chicago as music director with performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Chicago has seen the best of him, and he will be missed. Toronto had but a glimpse. But we’ll miss him, too.