Muti, CSO and chorus close season with inward spiritual program

Fri Jun 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music of Mozart, Vivaldi and Verdi Thursday night.

Adventurous programming typically means spotlighting contemporary repertoire or obscure composers, but such ventures out of the mainstream can be done with music by even the most familiar names. It’s just a matter of uncovering some of these creators’ obscure or, at least, less frequently heard gems and putting them together in imaginative, smartly integrated if unexpected ways.

That’s exactly what Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus did Thursday evening in a wonderfully inventive program that brought together choral works by Mozart, Vivaldi and Giuseppe Verdi.

Often the choice of repertoire for a final season program is something gargantuan, showy or spectacular. But with this unconventional lineup, the music director opted for a different and, in many ways, more daring approach, choosing works in which simplicity, inward drama and modesty reigned supreme.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, K. 618, a brief sacred work that the orchestra performed only once before in 1969. These 46 perfect bars offer the essence of pared-down simplicity – just a small chorus (seated in this case, because of the hushed nature of the piece), strings and organ. Rather than try to add any kind of interpretative overlay, Muti kept his direction to an absolute minimum and just let this miniature speak on its own powerful terms.

Next came Vivaldi’s Magnificat, R. 611, in its belated CSO premiere, with Muti opting for the fourth and final version of this piece. Composed around 1715 for a girls’ orphanage, which had an obviously fine music program, the work runs slightly less than 20 minutes, but the composer does a lot with a little, making it seem larger and more substantial.

The six chorus sections anchor the piece, with the CSO Chorus delivering a typically first-rate performance. The five arias were originally written for different singers, but each solo was taken in this version by mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova. She was able to handle the coloratura and other technical demands well enough but never sounded comfortable or especially convincing.

As beautiful as they were, the first two works were lead-ups to the evening’s main event, Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, which he finished shortly after he turned 84. These are extraordinary valedictory accomplishments by one of the great composers, drawing on the experience of a long career and meditating on the very meaning of life. The four works, written at different times and for different reasons, were never intended to be a set but they are traditionally performed that way, and they ultimately fit together and complement each other.

Muti is generally considered to be the greatest living conductor of Verdi, and that reputation was reinforced Thursday evening. Using the most minute finger gesture or a powerful lurch of his entire body, he keyed in on every detail, shaping the tone, texture, tempo and dynamics of each piece bar by bar, even word by word.

But at the same time he was always careful to not be overly intrusive, especially in the opening Ave Maria, a short, surprisingly unassuming a capella prayer for four voices that in some ways recalled the earlier work by Mozart. Here, Muti stepped back and rightly put his trust in the abilities of the singers (a subset of the larger chorus) and the expert preparation of chorus master Duain Wolfe.

The Stabat Mater was the last music Verdi would write and proved the high point of the evening. As in his  Requiem, there is an undeniably operatic quality as the composer dramatically offsets sections of soft a capella singing with pages powerfully backed by the orchestra, such as the almost ugly blast of sound accompanying the words, “Jesus in torment.” There were notable moments throughout, like the phrase “breathing out his spirit,” which the orchestra and chorus slowly and almost painfully drew out, like a person struggling with labored breaths. A brass fanfare announces the elegiac yet hopeful ending, with its celestial harp and a glorious final build-up with the words “paradisi gloria” – all affectingly realized by Muti, orchestra and chorus.

Rounding out the work was a portion of the women’s chorus offering an a cappella take on the Laudi alla Vergine Maria and the Te Deum, which like the Stabat Mater, offers its own wonderful dramatic contrasts, as Verdi effectively switches from chant to his own style, ending with an emphatic repetition of “Miserare nostri, Domine” before a momentary silence and a brief unexpected solo by soprano Kimberly Gunderson.

These three well-matched choral works provided a fitting end to the latest chapter in the exciting, still-growing relationship between the orchestra and one of the leading conductors of our time.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

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