There are changes and there are changes.
Wednesday night, Riccardo Muti made his West Coast debut conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium in a program of Berg, Mozart and Mahler. My colleague Albert Goldberg noted, with relief bordering on ecstasy, that the Philadelphians of '85 under the Italian maestro sounded much like the Philadelphians of yore under Eugene Ormandy.
Thursday--same time, same place--Muti and his mighty band turned their attentions to the gloom of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 3 and to the vast, indulgent sprawl of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." To these ears, the great old orchestra sounded like a great new orchestra.
The distinctions may relate in part to repertory. It is perfectly possible that the Wednesday-night challenges inspired nostalgic responses from both players and listeners. Nevertheless, the differences that became apparent on Thursday were striking, and illuminating.
Ormandy used to luxuriate in lush, dazzling, throbbing orchestral textures, with the stress on strings that sometimes shimmered just for the blissful sake of shimmering. Muti obviously prefers a lean and slender sound, with the silken strings assuming a less prominentplace in the fabric.
Ormandy used to be so concerned with making beautiful, beautiful music that he sometimes neglected the meaning of the music. Muti is, if nothing else, a thinker.
Ormandy came from an interpretive school that really could savor 19th-Century manners, pausing to linger over sentimental passages, stretching dramatic crescendos, dotting every emotional i at least twice and crossing every expressive t , if possible, three times. Muti is a man of restraint.
Both men have the blissful advantage of working with a composite instrument that must be a wonder of the civilized world. Thursday's concert and a number of recent recordings would suggest, however, that Ormandy and Muti use that instrument in fundamentally different ways.
Prokofiev's Third--which dates back to 1928 and utilizes both themes and moods from his opera "The Flaming Angel"--is a bleak tone poem replete with savage bombast, demonic hysteria and graphic depictions of despair. Although there are necessary passages of barren, almost lyrical calm that separate the grotesque storms, the piece--a wonderful, unjustly neglected, eminently modern piece--deals compulsively with what Israel Nestyev called "the world of medieval mysticism," with "images of suffering, torture and monstrous exorcisms."
All this can seem fatally overbearing if the conductor succumbs to the temptation to exaggerate. Muti knows that the drama of this score needs no embellishment. He plays it straight, fast, tight and clean.
He also plays the "Symphonie Fantastique" straight, fast, tight and clean. That, however, doesn't preclude a vast network of subtle transformations of the basic idee fixe, an insinuating hesitation in the waltz at the ball, or a terrifying blast of the "Dies Irae" at the Witches' Sabbath.
Muti's traversal of the Berlioz oration is especially affecting because it moves in one long breath. The passionate outbursts are perfectly scaled, the minor climaxes are kept in context, the abiding tensions are sustained even when tiny expressive nuances lend subjective color and weight to a passing phrase.
Others may conduct a bigger, broader, heavier, flashier "Fantastique"--a more fantastic one, if you will. But few impart such logic, such clarity and such introspective pathos.
Muti and the Philadelphians, his Philadelphians, restore elegance to Romanticism.