Magnificent “Manfred” Symphony makes for a rousing Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in Kansas City. 

A orchestra in concert hall.

Presented by the Harriman Jewell Series, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti perform in Helzberg Hall on their North American tour.  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned to Kansas City for an expansive program of rarely-heard works from two household names of the 19th century.  

Riccardo Muti, now in his last season as CSO’s music director, conducted Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1853, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1885 “Manfred Symphony.” 

This was the orchestra’s third appearance with the Harriman-Jewell Series, with an eager, near sell-out crowd at Helzberg Hall, part of CSO’s North American tour. 

Though it is Muti’s last season as music director of CSO, he’ll continue to collaborate with the organization in the coming years. Even in his 80s, he presented an impressive figure on the podium. 

Violinist Julia Fischer joined CSO for Schumann’s devilishly difficult concerto, a 30-minute heavy lift for the soloist. For 80 years after Schumann’s death, this piece went unheard. It’s a late work of Schumann’s, written shortly before he attempted suicide. To his wife Clara and their close friends, it seemed to indicate in its content a decline in his mental health, so they prohibited its performance for 100 years. Resurrected in 1937, the concerto is vibrant, yet subtle. 

Julia Fischer wears a dark velvet gown and plays the violin with eyes shut, standing in front of the violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Violinist Julia Fischer performs Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Kansas City, conducted by Riccardo Muti. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

The orchestra gave it a clean reading, attune to Fischer, and with lots of smiling between conductor and front line of principal strings. The sound was rich and full (considering they don’t rehearse in the hall together—though they’d played it the three previous nights in Chicago—it was a textbook example of across the stage listening), the final chord of the first movement approached with such warmth.

Overzealous audience members started clapping following the cadence, marring the energy of the moment. 

The second movement was like a prayer, with a simple, graceful duet between Fischer and principal cellist John Sharp. The twining lines took a slight turn toward mournful, before driving into the final movement, a sparkling work with punctuations from the winds and shining moments in the strings. At its conclusion, Fischer received four curtain calls. 

Fischer’s fiery approach to the part had a certain deal-with-the-devil energy, so perhaps it was no surprise she chose an energetic Niccolò Paganini work for her encore: Caprice No. 13 (nicknamed “Devil’s Laughter”). 

Again, it displayed her stunning capabilities. Again, the performance was hampered by out of place applause, interrupting the final return of the theme. Fischer, with gracious good humor, glanced at concertmaster Robert Chen as she waited for the ruckus to die down before completing the number (to, of course, more applause). 

But then it was on to Tchaikovsky after intermission. “Manfred” Symphony, Op. 58 is based on Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, though it took some convincing for Tchaikovsky to agree to use that as the basis for his work. And while not as familiar as some of his other large works, it was an exuberant experience. The work is massive: in length, in strength, and in volume.

Tchaikovsky was not afraid to push the genre to its edges and Muti certainly isn’t either. That was perhaps the loudest performance from acoustic instruments I’ve ever heard, as solid as though you could put your hand up against the sound itself. 

With a curt nod, Muti gestured to the bassoons, whose opening line set the tone for the experience: unified, organ-like richness. The stages of Manfred’s journey, the rise and fall of his emotional state, are displayed through tender, succulent string playing, blistering, bells-up brass, a resounding passage from bass clarinet, and thunderous timpani and bass drum. 

At the cut off, Muti smote the first stutter of incipient ovation with an uncompromising flick of his palm, controlling the audience members’ outburst as effectively as he led the orchestra. Throughout, his expressive gestures shifted from broad to specific, pointing to a soloist, punching the air, leaning close to the violins, harnessing the energy, beating time only in the strictest of necessity. 

Smiles glimmered during the second movement, whether just the sweet energy of the melodies or an inside joke remembered. The winds here did incredible work, cascades of notes that surged and gushed through the movement, tinseled with precise triangle. All of this trickled into pristine harp plucks and violin pizzicato, the last few precious shimmers flourished by the concertmaster. 

In the pastoral third movement, the music conjured the austerity of the mountains and the fragile beauty of the life that clings to them, with delicate moments laced through. 

An emphatic Allegro con fuoco concluded Manfred’s soul torment, a nevertheless jubilant ride right up to the edge of the extreme. Tchaikovsky brought each voice in the orchestra to its pinnacle and the orchestra’s reading embraced this in the rambunctious fugue and its aftermath. So many vigorous voices, from harp to flute to trumpet to organ, given clarity and emphasis, resolved to the work’s last tone with a breathless concentration of energies. 

This was perhaps Muti’s last Kansas City appearance. Heading toward semi-retirement and certainly fewer North American appearances, it was perhaps a perfect send-off. On the other hand, hearing Chicago in this setting only furthered the craving to hear more. Hopefully, subsequent performances will include work by CSO Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, who Kansas City audiences could benefit from knowing better. 

Reviewed Sunday, February 26, 2023. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed in Helzberg Hall, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series. For more information visit hjseries.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply