Following their Beethoven program in West Palm Beach, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony travelled south to Miami for a concert epitomizing Russian Romanticism, sounding nothing short of spectacular in Knight Concert Hall. A few seconds into Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Muti, without missing a beat, turned to stare down a cougher – a gesture rewarded by the audience being silent for the rest of the concert. (This tactic worked equally well when perpetrated by Waltraud Meier at Carnegie Hall some years ago.) In the introductory Andante, clarinets and bassoons were excellent generating a dark atmosphere with the motto that recurs, and then introduced the Allegro, the relationship between the two tempos well-judged, and the strings played with elegance and subtlety. Despite a brief pause after the deep growl that ended the movement, such an aura felt sustained as the low strings, cellos superb, then opened the Andante cantabile, leading into Daniel Gingrich’s glorious horn solo. The third-movement waltz began with Muti barely gesturing, as if he were a bystander drinking in the music, and, in the Finale, Muti gave the brass full head, yet the strings held their own. When a patron’s clapping briefly broke the silence following the climax, Muti smiled enigmatically. Was he annoyed or perhaps triumphant at having sprung Tchaikovsky’s trap?
In Scheherazade concertmaster Robert Chen’s finely wrought solos, embellished by Sarah Bullen’s harp, represented the eponymous storyteller who thwarts the plan of the Sultan (trombones) to slay her following their wedding by engrossing him for 1,001 nights with her to-be-continued tales, ultimately winning him over. In ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ the strings effectively evoked the surging of the sea, with John Sharp contributing excellent cello solos and the winds suggesting the sparkling of sunlight on the waves. Keith Buncke’s bassoon bookended the lively dance in ‘The Tale of the Kalandar Prince’, and Stephen Williamson offered delightful clarinet riffs in ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’. Rimsky’s superb orchestration was brought vividly to life in ‘Festival in Baghdad’, and, following the raging sea driving Sinbad’s ship into the rocks, Chen gave Scheherazade the last, peaceful word. As an encore there was the Intermezzo from Giordano’s opera, Fedora.