Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala
Salzburg Festival, Austria
seen August 25, 1999. 8:30-11pm
by Philip Anson
Riccardo Muti, boss of Milan's La Scala Opera since 1986, has had a rocky relationship with Austria's Salzburg Festival. Between 1971 and Karajan's death in 1989, Muti was a regular Festival conductor and was so sure of succeeding Der Chef, as Karajan was called, that he bought a house close to this picturesque riverside town. But Karajan was succeeded in 1991 by the dynamic Belgian Gerard Mortier, whose modernist tastes couldn't be more different from Muti's. The ensuing stand-off has had its light moments. Since both Mortier and Muti are about 5 foot 4 inches tall, people joked that they should see eye to eye, but Napoleonic height and ego are about all they have in common. In 1992 Muti walked out of a modern staging of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito he was suppposed to conduct. This year saw a partial reconciliation. Muti two concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic and one with the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala (the La Scala opera's pit band), but no opera.
The concert by the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala was an exciting event and the normally catatonic Salzburg audience was enlivened by cries of Bravo Maestro! and Bravo Italia! The program consisted, predictably, of Italian music. The concert opened with the romantic fare Muti favours: three orchestral miniatures originally composed for piano by Neapolitan Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) : Notturno Op. 70, No1 (1891/1901), Novelletta Op. 82 (1905/1908), and Giga for Orchestra Op 61, No. 3 (1885/91). These light, atmospheric pieces served as warm ups while we got a good look at Muti, one of the world's last celebrity conductors.
In her recent book on Cecilia Bartoli, Manuela Hoelterhoff called Muti "the famously short maestro of fear". As the controversial boss of La Scala, Italy's greatest opera house, he is reportedly the most hated man in that country of high artistic passion. And his face reflects it - a stony visage, with hooded eyes and a clenched jaw, half Mafia godfather, half Aztec god of war. Physically, he's the shape of a Max Beerbohm caricature, sprouting from tiny feet through a slim waistline to wide shoulders and a huge head topped with thick, carefully coiffed raven black hair. His diminutive stature means his podium is two feet high, and he takes his bows standing beside the only orchestra member shorter than himself, a midget-sized violinist.
As a Neapolitan, Muti is expected to be volatile, and his baton technique was indeed combative. American conductors tend to politely coax or implore their orchestras, but Muti stabbed and punched the air with vicious jabs when he wanted loud, abrupt effects. Sometimes his arms whirled like a dervish, at twice tempo, like he was doing a kung fu routine. This would look silly in America, but it is probably just the thing to wake up the dolce far niente Italian musicians.
Programming Edward Elgar's In the South (Alassie) Op. 50 (1904), was quixotic, since the only sunny thing about the overture is the name. With no folkloric content and little scene painting, it is a bit of a stateless bore, neither here nor there. But Muti likes it since, as he announced in English to the German audience, he is from the south. The La Scala strings are glorious machines. The violas have an extraordinary minky warmth, the violins are incisive and incredibly unified, the cellos and basses seamlessly cushy. Overall the string section is extremely articulate and vibrant, but without the least edginess or bite. Likewise the winds were more collectively beautiful than individually virtuosic. There was never a single ugly or independent sound from any instrument or section. It was ensemble work and bel canto all the way.
Not even in Busoni's Turandot Suite Op 41 (1911), where eight charcater sketches (Altoum, Turandot, etc.) call for a wide variety of individual instrumental effects, was there any solitary display. The complex tempos led to a momentary slippage between sections, but the flub was brief.
To American ears accustomed to the beefy sound of the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and even Montreal Symphony Orchestras, the La Scala Filarmonica sounds like a highly refined chamber orchestra. Most of their effective playing was mezzopiano or piano. Even at forte they were half the strength of a major American orchestra (but the pleasure given was equal or greater). The aesthetic effect was the difference between bittersweet chocolate and a Godiva truffle.
[No doubt the La Scala sound has developed in the superior acoustics of small scale venues built for music in a more human age. Toronto's Hummingbird Centre and Montreal's Place des Arts simply can not support the growth of a fine flower like the La Scala Orchestra, let alone a Concertgebouw, Wiener Philharmoniker, or Berlin Phil. In proper halls, European orchestras never have to force. And their audience is sophisticated. They've heard all the best orchestras in the world, they know music, so they don't need to be bludgeoned with circus effects. For an American, the subtlety of La Scala leads to the discovery of the forgotten wonders of music and the capabilties of individual instruments.]
The concert's cornerstone was Respighi's bombastic symphonic poem Feste Romane (1929), which gave La Scala a chance to show off their lightning changes from ppp to fff, as well as a startling battery of percussion. It was their cheval de bataille and brought the house down, though I would have preferred to hear what they could do with the more familiar Pines and Fountains. Muti conducted with a score and wore reading glasses when facing the orchestra.
The sole encore was the overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino, a sort of La Scala anthem. This was truly a performance to remember, probably the most fascinating musical exegesis of an overture I've ever heard. Every phrase, every theme was teased out, highlighted, polished, and faded in and out with breathtaking justesse. It was like hearing Verdi for the first time, a whole opera condensed into four minutes. Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, and I felt that my hundreds of nights at operas other than La Scala have been wasted.