When music is led by a great conductor like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler or Herbert von Karajan, it is charged with an electricity missing from performances led by lesser talents.
Riccardo Muti belongs in that pantheon of great conductors. In a Muti performance, whether live, on radio or on a recording, one immediately senses the power and intelligence behind the baton. When Muti conducts, it is not ordinary music-making.
The Harriman-Jewell Series will present Muti leading his world-famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday at Helzberg Hall. They will perform Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It promises to be one of the concerts of the year.
The last time the Chicago Symphony performed in Kansas City was in 1967. Muti made his last appearance in Kansas City in 1986, when he appeared on the Harriman-Jewell Series conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
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It has been too long, both for Kansas City and for Muti himself, who has fond memories of his last visit, which included a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“In one of the rooms was a painting or a drawing by Corrado Giaquinto, a famous painter of the 18th century who was born in Molfetta, where I grew up for the first 17 years of my life,” Muti said. “At home I have a painting of Giaquinto’s. So I was in Kansas City reading the name of Corrado Giaquinto, and it gave me the feeling of being, somehow, at home.
“The first thing I will do when I come to Kansas City is go back to the museum and try to find again this painting of Giaquinto. I hope they have not moved it.”
Muti was excited when I suggested he seek out Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting of the young John the Baptist on his next visit.
“This is great that you told me because I will definitely see the painting of another compatriot,” he said. “Caravaggio was two things that I am not. First, he was a genius and I am not. Second, he was an assassin, and I am not.”
It is true that, unlike Caravaggio, Muti has never killed anyone, but most classical music lovers would take issue with the first statement. Muti is a true genius of the podium, in the lineage of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Toscanini. Muti’s teacher, Antonino Votto, was an assistant to Toscanini and passed on the legendary conductor’s philosophy, which emphasizes a fidelity to the score, to the young Muti.
“I admire Toscanini very much,” Muti said. “He brought an ethical sense to the performance. Toscanini really was the servant of the composer, and he tried very hard to follow the intentions of the composer, to the point, sometimes, where the music sounded too cold, too direct, too strict.
“But in a period when interpreters thought they were more important than the composer himself, Toscanini brought a certain rigor, a certain discipline to his interpretations.”
Toscanini isn’t the only conductor of the past Muti admires. With Toscanini, Muti considers Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan the three greatest conductors of the 20th century. Muti admires Furtwängler’s approach for the exact opposite reason he admires Toscanini’s.
“Furtwängler always had in his performances a kind of freedom that was a controlled freedom,” Muti said. “You have, when you listen to Furtwängler, the sense of improvisation that is not an improvisation. But it’s so free, he gives the impression he is creating the performance right in that moment, and this is something that is very magical.”
Muti admires Karajan for yet another reason. According to Muti, it was Karajan’s quest for brilliant sound that set him apart from other conductors. Karajan was forever exploring different timbres to coax an unparalleled beautiful sound from his fine-tuned Berlin Philharmonic.
Although Muti admires Karajan’s pursuit of sonic brilliance, he feels that Karajan’s obsession with sound went too far.
“Karajan became so in love with this search for the possibilities of sound, that at a certain point at the end of his life he became too mannered and everything sounded like Richard Strauss or like Mahler, even when he conducted (Giuseppe) Verdi or Beethoven,” Muti said.
“The beauty of the sound became an idée fixe for Karajan to the point that the sound became more important than the substance of the performance.”
Just as he has three favorite conductors, there are three orchestras that Muti considers the greatest in the world: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and two for which he is a frequent guest conductor, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
“All three are completely different,” Muti said. “The Berlin Philharmonic is a very Germanic, orchestra, especially under Furtwängler and Karajan. It changed under other conductors, still remaining a great, but basically a Germanic orchestra.
“The Vienna Philharmonic has the perfume of Mitteleuropa. It’s the combination of the different cultural traditions of Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Vienna is special for a velvet and refined sound, especially of the strings and especially when they play the repertoire of (Franz) Schubert, (Anton) Bruckner, Beethoven, (Johannes) Brahms and Mahler.”
In the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Muti believes he has an instrument that combines the best of the old and new worlds.
“It is the most European of the American orchestras,” he said. “It has the precision and the strong attack of sound that is typical of the American orchestras, but also a flexibility that makes this orchestra very versatile.
“At one time the Chicago Symphony was very famous in the world for the brass, but today we have a woodwind section and a string section that are equally wonderful. The orchestra is able to project the strong sound that they had in the past, but also the refinement that is typical of a European orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic.”
In Helzberg Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will have an opportunity to show off its power and its way with Germanic music. Muti has chosen epic works by Beethoven and Mahler that are the epitome of that repertoire.
“Of course, the fifth symphony is a very popular piece,” Muti said. “Everybody knows the beginning, duh-duh-duh-duuuh.
“The first movement was used by the Nazis as an example of the power of Germany. Deutschland über alles. They used poor Beethoven to emphasize their horrible power. So the fifth became full of exaggerations, making gigantic performances of a symphony that belongs to the early 19th century and is the expression of a composer concerned about the architecture of his work.”
Muti says he brings a more authentic, “classical” approach to the symphony that is more true to Beethoven’s intentions. Toscanini would be proud.
The second half of the program is devoted to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, known as “Titan.” Even thought it’s almost an hour long, it’s an audience favorite.
The “Titan” is filled with thrilling moments, beautiful melodies and tender emotions and concludes with a triumphant finale that leaves the audience in an exalted mood like few other works.
“I have conducted and I love all of Mahler’s works, but the first symphony is one of his most compact and beautiful symphonies,” Muti said. “Every symphony of Mahler is beautiful and interesting, but the first goes directly to the heart of the public.
“I recorded the Mahler first symphony many years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it is one of the symphonies I love most.”
The Harriman-Jewell Series in partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present master classes conducted by musicians from the Chicago Symphony from 1 to 3 p.m Wednesday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. The public is invited to observe at no cost and no reservations are needed. For more information, visit hjseries.org.
7 p.m. Tuesday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $30-$80. 816-415-5025 or hjseries.org.
Bach Collegium Japan
So much of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is rooted in an 18th century Germanic Lutheranism that it might seem odd that the world’s great ensemble devoted to Bach’s music is from Japan. But it’s true.
The Bach Collegium Japan, founded and directed by Masaaki Suzuki, has won two of the world’s most prestigious Bach prizes: the Royal Academy of Music’s Bach Prize and the Bach Medal, bestowed by the City of Leipzig. When it comes to Bach, this ensemble more than holds its own with any Western early music group.
The Bach Collegium Japan will perform works by its namesake this Friday at Yardley Hall. The concert is a co-presentation by the Friends of Chamber Music and the Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College.
Suzuki, who was born to Christian parents in Kobe, Japan, began playing organ in his church when he was 12. He eventually studied organ and harpsichord with renowned Bach specialist Ton Koopman in Amsterdam.
He founded the Bach Collegium Japan in 1990, and its recordings have won many top awards, like the Cannes Classical Award for its St. John Passion and the Diapason D’Or and BBC Music Magazine Award for its recording of the Bach motets.
In Yardley Hall, the group will perform the ever-popular Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and a solo cantata featuring soprano Joanne Lunn, among other works.
To get you primed for the concert, the Friends of Chamber Music’s Forte Film Series will present “The Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” starring harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave. For more information, visit chambermusic.org.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
For the past couple of Halloweens, the Kansas City Symphony and Screenland have presented silent horror classics accompanied by organ, and they’ve been a scream. This year, the featured film is “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring John Barrymore as the kind, charitable doctor with an inner monster just waiting to be unleashed.
Dorothy Papadakos, a master of the art of theater organ improvisation, will add to the thrills with her accompaniment. Luckily Helzberg Hall has the Casavant organ, an instrument worthy of Papadakos’ keyboard brilliance.
7 p.m. Thursday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$50. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.
Igudesman & Joo
Are you feeling spontaneous? If so, grab some tickets for a performance Sunday by two people you’ve probably never heard of. You might find your spontaneity paying off in big-time laughs.
Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo are a classically trained violinist and pianist, respectively, who give a Pythonesque presentation of classical music. In fact, none other than Terry Jones of Monty Python says “Igudesman & Joo bring surrealism to the concert hall and takes its trousers down.” This video might also give you an idea of what they’re all about: tinyurl.com/pshannb
Reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org.