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‘We have made friends here,’ Riccardo Muti says after 2 Mexico concerts

CSO music director Riccardo Muti (right) accepts an honorary award from representatives Festival Cervantino GuanajuaMexico.

CSO music director Riccardo Muti (right) accepts an honorary award from representatives of the Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico.

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:24AM

MEXICO CITY — “Presence,” Riccardo Muti repeatedly tells the musicians and staff of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “It’s our presence that matters.”

Whether it’s an appearance on Chicago’s South Side or Millennium Park, a visit to a juvenile detention center or New York’s Carnegie Hall, a tour to California or to Russia, Europe or Asia, by bringing the CSO to people, nations and communities wherever they are, Muti believes “we establish a human connection. We effect a contact between great music, played at the highest level, and people of every background.”

Over the last two weeks, music director Muti and the CSO connected with incarcerated teens in Chicago; mezzo diva Marilyn Horne, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton in New York City; 800 rapt high school students in the Mexican state capital of Guanajuato, and students attending an intense master class in Mexico City’s elegant Palacio de Bellas Artes.

The CSO’s three programs last week at Carnegie Hall, the U.S. cultural capital and its most historic and esteemed concert venue, were something of a ritual. Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” and two nights of Dvorak, Wagner, Franck, Martucci, Respighi and the East Coast premiere of “Alternative Energy” by CSO co-composer-in-residence Mason Bates, showed the CSO strong yet subtle across all areas of Muti’s eclectic repertoire — and drew tremendous ovations.

When the CSO goes to new places, however, transformations can take place. This week’s two-city Mexico tour allowed for an overdue debut in a neighboring country with deep ties to Chicago.

The CSO, its professional training orchestra, the Civic, andthe CSO Institute, its protean education arm, played a big role in the recent 2010 Chicago joint commemorations of the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. For Alvaro R. Obregon, a Pilsen native, a CSO Institute board member and a key organizer of 2010 celebrations, “This [tour] has been like walking on air.”

With a grin that seemed to stretch from west-central Guanajuato, his mother’s hometown, toMexico City, Obregon said, “It’s hard to emphasize what it means for Chicago’s greatest cultural ambassadors to come here, to be so serious as musicians and yet so full of love as Maestro Muti demonstrates.”

After Wednesday’s tour-closing concert in Mexico City, Obregon also emphasized “the connection is two ways: the CSO members and the Maestro now see what a major role culture — and not only folkloric culture — plays in Mexico. How focused, how quiet, the audiences are here. How many thousands of young people study classical music and instruments.”

Echoing post-concert sentiments on the importance of culture in a democratic society expressed by the governor of Guanajuato, Obregon continued, “The Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato was begun before Orchestra Hall in Chicago. For its 40 years, the Festival Cervantino [which the CSO headlined on this tour] has sold out its runs at multiple venues and across genres.”

Obregon was not exaggerating. Muti was moved by the attention and the range of the audiences at the 800-seat Moorish Juarez theater and the Art Deco 1,500-seat Bellas Artes in Mexico City (each of which also offered free live telecasts to additional hundreds outdoors). Speaking from the stage in Italian, Muti saluted the quietness and hospitality of the Mexican public, and offered encores of his fellow Neapolitan Giuseppe Martucci’s “Notturno” at both venues.

Other than the emotions and visuals, alas, the wooden-interior jewel-box Teatro Juarez is no hall for symphonic music. The CSO strings were made to sound tinny, reminding one of early movie scores. Strange cross-diagonal acoustics called on the leadership of the outstanding new principal bass, Alexander Hanna, and his rejuvenated section colleagues in the Brahms Second Symphony. The other side of the tiny hall, the smallest the CSO has played on tour, was overwhelmed by what might be termed The Attack of the 50-Foot Harp in the Franck Symphony.

The Bellas Artes was a distinct several steps up. (Its famed full-proscenium 1930s Tiffany glass curtain, depicting the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtoxyhautal and the Mexican valley, was visible at the midday Muti Mozart master class, but was already raised at the actual concert.) From their central seating, winds (with all four outstanding principals playing), brass and horns all triumphed at both venues, and this despite playing in two cities well over a mile high. Principal trumpet Christopher Martin remarked that fitness was more essential than usual, and that even one colleague with legendary breath control “was with the rest of us in taking extra breaths.”

At lunch between the Mexico City master class and concert Wednesday, Muti expressed his great satisfaction. “An orchestra does not travel as a missionary, but as a gathering of friends. You will see that we have made friends here, and they have made friends in us.”

Thursday morning, I spoke with horn Oto Carrillo, the CSO’s only Latino member. Had he minded functioning as Spanish-English presenter and interpreter in Guanajuato?

“Minded? That afternoon was the highlight of the whole tour for me. We are usually going into small classrooms at home, and you know that some of the students or classes might have been selected ahead of time. These were more than 800 kids who listened, watched, asked questions and even hit the stage afterward for autographs, all as if our being there playing this music was the most important thing in the world.”

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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