The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a new music director — or rather, to be precise, a music director designate. The renowned Italian maestro Riccardo Muti will take up the CSO’s baton in the fall of 2010. Muti is in Chicago now, however, conducting a few concerts this season as a sort of warm-up to his full-time duties next year.
I recently heard Muti give a talk at Orchestra Hall. At one point, he gently mocked young conductors who make faces and gesture wildly when they’re in front of an orchestra. Apparently in a jesting mood, Muti talked about how simple it is to conduct, using Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony as an example in his one-minute lesson on how to move your arms to the tempo.
On Saturday night, I got my first look at how Muti conducts, when he led the CSO and the Chicago Symphony Chorus in a performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem. As much as Muti talked about conducting with the simplest of arm movements, he performed with flowing gestures, sometimes looking as if he were shaping the music in the space in front of him, sculpting sounds out of thin air.
And what beautiful music it was. It was especially impressive to hear a couple of hundred voices from the chorus blending together in an almost seamless whole, sounding just as lovely whether they were singing softly or raising the volume to match the epic quality of the German Biblical lyrics.
On the first night that Muti and the CSO performed A German Requiem, a few overly enthusiastic folks in the audience apparently applauded too early. At least, that’s what Chicago Tribune critic John Von Rhein reported in his review. Brahms’ composition ends with a few moments of silence, and Muti still had his arms up when some people began applauding. Muti kept his arms up, as if to say: “Not yet.” On Saturday night, the audience held its applause until the right moment, when Muti had lowered his arms. And then the applause went on and on. It was a well deserved ovation for Chicago’s new maestro — and the terrific musicians and singers he’ll be conducting next year.