Riccardo Muti and the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra consecrated their weekend residency at Carnegie Hall on Friday night with two ocean-inspired works and a musical path toward becoming superhuman.

Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg

The evening started with Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, inspired by Goethe’s eponymous poems. First performed in 1828, Mendelssohn’s ideal for a calm sea greatly differed from that of Goethe, whose calm sea is fixed with anxiety and uncertainty. Mendelssohn, however, did not view the calm sea from a maritime perspective but from a casual observer's standpoint; the calm sea is gentle and contemplative yet unfathomable. The low strings of the Chicago Symphony laid a solid foundation from the first downbeat in a unified pianissimo that surely rewarded favorable attention for the remainder of the concert. After an unsettling transition, the prosperous voyage begins as the strings and woodwinds take off with a theme so charming one wishes Mendelssohn wrote an opera to accompany the overture. The Chicago Symphony’s high brass introduced the last few chords with a jubilant fanfare, and it seems fitting in the final moments of the piece to slightly alter Goethe’s text: “The distance approaches; I hear trumpets beyond!”

Continuing with the idea of the ocean through the lense of a composer, Debussy’s La Mer is a medium for featuring orchestral colors. Our 21st century ears have a grasp on Debussy's use of pentatonic melodies and whole tone scales, but critics of his time were not so eager to accept his modern tendencies. Maestro Muti demonstrated a healthy command over the orchestra’s balance, allowing for the fusion and emphasis of exceptional timbres and effects. For instance, in the final bars of the first movement, the maestro controlled a swell as if the ocean took a deep breath, and in the third movement, flautist Christina Smith, of the Atlanta Symphony, and principal oboist Eugene Izotov coalesced into a silvery contour. La Mer received its New York première at Carnegie Hall in 1907, exactly seven days after the next piece on the program.

Scriabin didn’t write music for lofty enjoyment, and it’s often more pleasurable to read his philosophies on composition than it is to listen to the compositions themselves. Riding the wave of Nietzsche and Wagner, Scriabin's Symphony no. 3 in C minor, “The Divine Poem” is a Romantic fixation on the individual realizing its Übermensch identity. Scriabin’s colleague Leonid Sabaneev once commented that the piece is a lot clearer when played on the piano because the orchestration is so vast – the score calls for 16 first violins and 16 second violins as well as 17 brass players – and the scoring is thick, which can pose a balancing problem for any conductor. Nevertheless, Maestro Muti’s intuitive sense of balance prescribed sufficient clarity to the mass of sound.

Although the symphony unravels in one large amoebus shape, it is defined by an introduction, marked Divin, grandiose, and three movements. The piece begins with bassoons and low brass at the loudest dynamic extreme to introduce the first movement, which shows the struggle, in Scriabin’s words, “between man as the slave of a personal God and man as God in himself”. The Chicago Symphony’s brass section again demonstrated why they are among the best in the world with diligent roundness and focus even in a stratospheric fortissimo. The second movement depicts indulgence in the earthly realm; the solo violin, played voluptuously by concertmaster Robert Chen, represents the individual as “his personality loses itself in nature”. Finally, the third movement steps into the world of the divine as “the spirit, freed from its submission to a superior power and conscious of its unity with the universe, abandons itself to the supreme joy of a free existence”. Judging from the audience’s wholehearted ovation, one would think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sent more than one spirit into the world of supreme joy.

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