This 45-minute streamed concert by Riccardo Muti and the 70+ musicians of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, part of a socially distanced Ravenna Festival, was billed as a celebration of the Italian symphonic tradition in the late 19th century. Perhaps unwittingly, the concert served more to illustrate that Italy’s operatic tradition is justifiably more significant.

Riccardo Muti
© Zani Casadio

The concert opened with the Notturno in G flat major by Giuseppe Martucci who, along with Marco Enrico Bossi, was one of the main proponents of orchestral music in Italy at the time, eschewing opera for other forms of musical expression. That said, the Nocturne, which originated as a piano piece, isn’t the best representation of Martucci’s symphonic achievements, which include four fine symphonies. Muti and his Cherubini players turned in a creditable performance with nice contrasts within the work’s mainly subdued dynamic, although there were several intonation issues in the strings.

The symphonic Puccini was represented by his Preludio sinfonico in A major, a student work. While at times aiming to sound like the Wagner-Liszt school, what’s immediately obvious is that Puccini’s melodies are the most memorable aspects of the piece as opposed to its musical structure. In fact, the composer would later lift several of the themes from the piece and use them in his operas Edgar and Le Villi.) Another Puccini trademark is the doubling of melodies played in the upper and lower registers. This was an elegantly shaped performance, with winds blending nicely with the strings and the musical climax was suitably bracing.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini
© Zani Casadio

The remainder of the program was devoted to orchestral excerpts from three Verdi operas, Nabucco, Macbeth and I vespri siciliani. The overture to Nabucco featured wonderful passages played by the brass players along with generally tight ensemble. The memorable “big theme” that appears in the middle was a particularly winsome highlight.

Presented next was the Act 3 ballet music from Macbeth, a three-part dance episode that was added by Verdi to the Paris Opéra's 1865 production to fulfil the requirement for interpolated ballet sequences. As a depiction of the witches that are central to the storyline of Macbeth’s lust for power and his eventual demise, the music is quite tame compared to Berlioz’s treatment of similar evil forces in his Symphonie fantastique, but it is quintessential Verdi, with agitated, exciting tutti moments contrasted by softer, more lyrical sections. The latter gave opportunities for several musicians to shine, although the tutti sections seemed a little foursquare at times.

The concluding number was the overture to Verdi’s opera I vespri siciliani, a finely controlled performance yet full of passion. Under Muti’s direction, orchestral ensemble was commendable – particularly the woodwinds, brass and percussion – in the process delivering some really thrilling moments. It was the perfect piece to show off the artistic distinction of the youthful Cherubini Orchestra players.

This performance was reviewed from the Ravenna Festival video livestream