Cherubini, Verdi, Rossini

Rousing visit by La Scala Philharmonic of Milan to the Salzburg Festival this evening.  Befitting an orchestra whose musicians mostly play in the orchestra pit of an opera house, this group understands drama, and adds to that an Italian passion.  Chief conductor Riccardo Chailly, who began his tenure in La Scala in the middle of last season, knew precisely how to maximize the talents of this orchestra, with big gestures (to compensate for his small stature, perhaps) but fully under control to harness their exuberance.  

The program’s first half showcased the rarely-performed music of Luigi Cherubini.  Actually, it was the inclusion of Cherubini on this program that made it most interesting.  A contemporary of Beethoven, the two of them knew each other’s music and each informed the other – Cherubini being more known for drama and liturgical music, Beethoven for his instrumental output.  Beethoven was the more original composer, but Cherubini’s sense of theater did allow him to inject a certain verve into the orchestral pieces on the menu tonight: the Concert Overture in G and the Symphony in D (Cherubini’s only symphony).  These were italianate updates on classical form, rather than reflecting Beethoven’s masterful innovations, but in keeping with Cherubini’s style and true to himself.  Chailly and the orchestra had fun with this opportunity.

They had more fun after the intermission, though.  The second half of the program led off with Giuseppe Verdi‘s ballet music The Four Seasons.  The convention at the Paris Opera required ballets to be inserted nonsensically into operas, and Verdi complied – but in composing a ballet for the Sicilian Vespers, Verdi decided to write one that not only could be deleted when performing the opera outside France, but for which the music would not go to waste as it could stand on its own.  The resulting half-hour work demonstrated Verdi’s ability to write evocative music for the dance – and as interpreted here by the Milanders and Chailly we could almost feel the weather change as the seasons progressed.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with another overture: from Giachino Rossini‘s William Tell.  Although a warhorse, this performance had a balance to it, with the orchestra not going through motions but drawing out the lines excitedly under Chailly’s direction.  We would have galloped off into the night at its conclusion, except that this audience wasn’t going anywhere.  The crowd demanded and got an encore: Verdi’s overture to the Sicilian Vespers.  This music did belong with the opera (unlike the ballet we heard earlier) and in the ten-minute span we went through the key points of the drama, concluding with the Sicilian rising.

The orchestra does not always have the most beautiful sound – it’s obvious they play to be heard from the pit.  But their joy with the notes shows.  I hate to harp too much on the Cleveland Orchestra, whose performance here on Friday was so disappointing, but it is precisely this that the Clevelanders do not seem to ever understand: music is passionate, it is emotional, it is dramatic.  The Bartók and Strauss works on Friday may be quite different from Cherubini, Verdi, and Rossini, but they still required emotion, that Cleveland despite its more gorgeous playing simply could not produce.  That was precisely von Dohnányi’s criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra.  The La Scala orchestra just appears to understand music better than Cleveland, and shares one approach with the Vienna Philharmonic (albeit nowhere in the league of the Vienna Philharmonic): its musicians, like the Philharmonic, spend most of their time in the orchestra pit.  It was Claudio Abbado’s idea during his tenure at La Scala to pull this orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage (no doubt influenced by his time in Vienna), and Chailly sees himself following in the late Abbado’s steps.  It made for an exciting concert tonight.

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