Music review: Riccardo Muti conducts New York Philharmonic beautifully

Wanted: Riccardo Muti, above in 2008, showed why he's in demand Saturday at the Kennedy Center.
Wanted: Riccardo Muti, above in 2008, showed why he's in demand Saturday at the Kennedy Center. (Sigi Tischler/associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

Riccardo Muti can play hard to get. Before Saturday afternoon, the Washington Performing Arts Society averred, the Italian conductor had not played in Washington for 18 years. And he has twice jilted the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra he led at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, rejecting overtures about the post of music director.

But Saturday's concert abundantly demonstrated that Muti and the Philharmonic make beautiful music together regardless of what they're playing. Not everyone present may have had a burning desire to hear Edward Elgar's long-winded tone poem "In the South," but the burnished performance, led by the solos of principal violist Cynthia Phelps, probably changed a few minds. Liszt's "Les Preludes," the third of his symphonic poems, sounded outright gorgeous. And the afternoon concluded with a searing performance of selections from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet."

The Philharmonic is an orchestra of abundant talent that can sound willful or even routine. Muti, though, makes the ensemble glow like a teenage girl in love. The program, with no soloist, played to the group's strengths: It was about showing off the orchestra and letting it sound pretty, and Muti's taut, vivid conducting put it in the most flattering light. Entrances zinged. Silences crackled. And a cornucopia of details poured out of the scores, like the celesta kissing the chords of Juliet's music, or a little violin figure circling up out of the massed instruments at the end of the ballet.

On a program of tone poems, "Romeo and Juliet" became the dramatic heart, from the opening that piled dissonances up into a huge crash of sound that left a fine dust of trembling strings rising in its wake. The death of Tybalt was devastating, with unrelenting blows of percussion and cellos. Muti, at times urbane and nearly motionless, at others leapt from the podium, and ended with his hands raised and fingers pressed together, as if evoking the prayer sounded by the final quiet rising note.

The afternoon showed what orchestra playing can be all about; not every work was the greatest, but there was abundant reason to listen to it. The real-life ending is more bittersweet, at least for the Philharmonic, which watches Muti go off to take over the Chicago Symphony as music director in 2010. The Philharmonic's own new music director, the American conductor Alan Gilbert, promises a different kind of energy. However that develops, Saturday afternoon certainly showed a wistful glance of something that might have been.

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