Having long ago planned a fall West Coast tour, the Chicago Symphony couldn’t have possibly known that when this mighty Midwest orchestra and its mighty maestro, Riccardo Muti, arrived Monday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, its duty would be to serve as an agent of civic pride. The Dodgers had just routed the Cubs in Game 2 of the National League playoffs.
Obviously, the baseball story could be very different by the time the CSO — after soaking up the heat in San Diego, Palm Desert and Santa Barbara — reaches Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday. But the orchestra story will be the same. The CSO has long operated at a consistently astonishing level. The playing at Monday’s concert, which opened the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s new season, was such that pride automatically comes with the territory.
The more curious matter is the territory, the reasons why this orchestra has the personality and sound it does. L.A. has had something to do with that, just as Chicago has had its synergistic effects on Southern California. The modern manifestations of the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic both can be traced to an incident — whether canny or incompetent we’ll never know — when the fiery Hungarian conductor Georg Solti was appointed music director of the L.A. Phil in the late 1950s.
Before Solti began, dashing twentysomething Zubin Mehta made his local debut and was immediately signed as principal guest conductor. Not having been consulted, Solti quit in a huff and Mehta was made music director, transforming a sleepy orchestra into a glamorous superstar. Solti wound up instead at the CSO, a once powerhouse he turned into a force of nature.
The Solti/Mehta alternative was the poetic Carlo Maria Giulini, whose close relationship with the CSO allowed him to easily travel to L.A. to guest conduct in the late 1970s, leading to his becoming Mehta’s successor. Even Muti’s route to Chicago was indirectly via L.A.
You may recall that announcement of Gustavo Dudamel’s appointment as music director of the L.A. Phil 10 years ago was made during his CSO debut. Chicago also was considering signing the young Venezuelan sensation. Muti around that time was a favored candidate for an upcoming opening at the New York Philharmonic. But when the conductor youth craze hit New York, Muti dropped out and Chicago nabbed him.
The head of the orchestra at the time who pulled off that coup just happened to have gotten her start at the L.A. Phil, and the West Coast connections don’t stop there. Former artistic administrators of the CSO are currently revitalizing Cal Performances at UC Berkeley and the San Diego Symphony, and it would be unthinkable that they are not making strong blips on the radar of the L.A. Phil search committee for a new president and CEO.
All that, yet the CSO Monday under Muti seemed so far in character from the venturesome major West Coast orchestras that it could well be the Vienna Philharmonic. Muti’s Segerstrom program was yawningly conventional — Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Schumann’s Second Symphony. At Disney Hall this Sunday, Muti will lead two Brahms symphonies. For some clueless reason, Muti, who has admirably championed several progressive young composers in Chicago, left off a recent CSO commission by the orchestra’s current composer-in-residence, Elizabeth Ogonek, from the Southern California portion of the tour.
Instead, as though Muti simply wanted to take no chances in one of the world’s musically chance-taking regions, there was nothing but grandeur in Costa Mesa. Not a musical hair on Schubert’s, Mozart’s or Schumann’s head was out of place. And if there was a hair where it didn’t belong on the distinguished 76-year-old Italian maestro’s head, he made sure no one would know, going so far as to insist that The Times photographer only be allowed in the hall for imperial curtain calls.
Or maybe Muti didn’t want to give away any secrets of his sonic sorcercy. The homogeneity of instrumental texture he achieved couldn’t be beat. Liquid winds marvelously blended with stirring brass. Fabulous strings played as one. The percussion section sounded made not for banging but melody.
Muti allowed all the time in the world for us to take this all in. He drew out every pause, pregnant with meaning. He painstakingly ascended to glorious, heaven-opening climaxes and faded slowly, oh so slowly, to heart-stopping black, a black so empty it felt like sensory deprivation.
There is, though, a price to such awe. It can be surprisingly fragile, undone by a sneeze. Early on in the Schubert, someone, in fact, sneezed, and Muti shot back daggers in his look. (No one sneezes during flu season in the Windy City?)
After all, in this unflappably perfect world, the “Unfinished,” its two movements drawn out to nearly a half-hour, overwhelms with an unstoppable effusion of lyricism, each unfolding inner line with its own story to tell.
The orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson, played the solo in Mozart’s concerto as though he had no tongue blocking a pure stream of legato melody and ornament. Again, the result proved awesome as all get out, but where was the articulation, the sense of saying something?
The main purpose of Schumann’s Second seemed to be to blow a listener away. It was too powerful, too masterful, too big to fail. You don’t argue with performances like that. They’re not about you. Right or wrong, you submit.
That’s one way, and an incomparably proud and impressive way to approach symphonic music. But pride, too, has its pitfalls. If the Cubs could do the same, there would be no point of a World Series.
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.com