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What Might Have Been: Riccardo Muti and the New York Philharmonic

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the New York Philharmonic's DC appearance. You can read his latest column for InsideCatholic here.

Truth to tell, I would not hurry to a concert hall to hear the Wagner-lite bombast of Liszt’s Les Preludes or even the rarely performed Elgar concert overture, In the South, which is not his best work. Excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are another matter, as it is my favorite ballet. However, I would prefer to hear the whole thing or the Suites from it, rather than a Reader’s Digest-like selection of high points.

My predilections are quite beside the point because the purpose of the matinee concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 4:00 PM on Saturday, November 21st, was to showcase the New York Philharmonic under its guest conductor Riccardo Muti. This was simply an afternoon to enjoy the merits of a first-rate orchestra and Muti displaying their prowess; a window into what-could-have-been, had the Chicago Symphony Orchestra not snatched Muti from the New York Philharmonic where he was supposed to become the new Principal Guest Conductor.

At that level of appreciation even I, who loath most of Liszt’s music, can enjoy Les Preludes. Muti tried hard to make this sound like serious music rather the dated period potboiler (with toothbrush mustache overtones) that it is. He was helped by the gorgeous playing of the string sections and the superb brass. The Elgar, a far more sophisticated work with multiple crosscurrents, also received virtuoso treatment, with Muti keeping myriad details clear within the welter of sounds. In the South contains many of the components that went into Elgar’s music to make it great, but does not quite achieve his signature sound or the surging sense of nobility for which he became so noted.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Muti coaxes pleasing glow from N.Y. Philharmonic (Washington Post, November 23)

Tim Smith, Riccardo Muti leads New York Philharmonic in DC concert (Baltimore Sun, November 23)

Peter Dobrin, They're still mad for Muti (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23)

Anthony Tommasini, Maestro Who Said No Returns to Philharmonic (New York Times, November 20)
The selections from Romeo and Juliet were
brilliantly performed. The music shimmered with great refinement. Muti and the New York Philharmonic caught the mystery, the ache, and the passion of this fabulous score. Muti hammered home “The Death of Tybalt” with extraordinary force and conviction.

Throughout, Muti combined litheness, energy and exactitude in his conducting, to which the New York Philharmonic responded in kind. (This makes one wonder what might-have-been had Muti not chosen the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for his next post, after refusing an offer from the NY Philharmonic.) Although I weary of Washington audiences awarding standing ovations to nearly everyone, Muti and the orchestra deserved it. RRR

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