Last night kicked off my 2007-2008 season of live classical music–performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theatre, a few each month from now until next May. CSO’s Afterworks Masterworks series began with last night’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique) conducted by Riccardo Muti.
The first piece on the program was Suite from Nobilissima visonione (1938) by German composer Paul Hindemith, which I enjoyed, in part because I’d never heard it before. Having been to the symphony a number of years in a row now, I spent a portion of the evening looking for familiar faces in the orchestra. (“Oh, there’s the clarinet player whose head turns red when he plays.”)
This was my first time seeing Muti conduct, not a surprise since he hasn’t appeared before the CSO in 32 years. I enjoyed watching his technique and rapport with the orchestra as I tried to follow how his body language corresponded to the music and what the musicians were doing.
The evening’s featured piece was the Pathetique, which I found underwhelming only because I’ve heard it to death. Tchaikovsky’s bombastic, over-the-top, romantic style isn’t my preference and even when performed live, I get a tad restless and bored. Audience members bobbing their heads and tapping their toes in time with the music, a sort of “Hey look, I recognize this part,” just adds to the mundaneness of it all.
Last night did contain a surprise when mid-performance Conductor Muti turned to face the audience, stifling applause that had spontaneously erupted after the powerful penultimate movement.
Anyone (well, almost anyone) who attends live classical music knows it’s a big no-no to applaud before the finale of a piece. Silence between movements is appropriate and, if you’re lucky, a pause at the conclusion–before that first hand claps–is a blessing. A concluding moment of silence, especially for a pianissimo piece ending with a single note or the mere whisper of sound, is one of the most beautiful and moving experiences. A moment to savor, pause, reflect, and marvel.
So last night, after the audience had signaled its approval by bursting into applause too soon, Muti chastised the crowd in a good-natured way, expressing his hope that we would judge the music by the emotion it conveyed and not by its loudness. He made some comments about the somber nature of the piece and pointed out that shortly after Tchaikovsky conducted this, his final work, he died unexpectedly. Muti suggested that the appropriate response at the conclusion of the performance might be to not applaud. (An extended variation on that final note of silence.) He would leave that choice up to us, he said, before turning back to the orchestra, raising his baton, and signaling the beginning of the end.
As the final notes sounded, like a dying heartbeat, there was a blissfully long moment of silence. And then the audience burst into applause. Muti looked stern as he turned to receive the applause and I felt as if we were a class that had failed the test. Didn’t he just tell us not to applaud? Instead, folks were beating their hands together, some popping out of their seats to give the orchestra and Muti a standing ovation.
In typical final bow protocol, Muti walked off and returned to the stage to more applause. Then he broke tradition again by holding up his hands and quieting the audience a second time. He paid a high compliment to the CSO. You have before you one of the finest orchestras in the world, he said, gesturing to the group of musicians behind him. What we have here in Chicago is a treasure, he told us. Take care of it.
Hopefully that’s a lesson this audience will remember well.