Muti, CSO wrap season in resplendent style with rare vocal masterworks

Fri Jun 22, 2018 at 4:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in music of Rossini, Cherubini and Mozart Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The three vocal works on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final season program largely center on death, grieving and departing the pain of earthly existence.

Yet the results were anything but grim or depressing Thursday night at Symphony Center. Riccardo Muti led the CSO, CSO Chorus and a stellar group of soloists in glorious, uplifting performances of a trio of rarities by Rossini, Cherubini and Mozart. The program provided the CSO music director’s finest home stand of the past two years, closing a mixed season on a decisively positive note.

Rossini’s Stabat Mater was the main work of the evening, presented in its first downtown CSO performance since Carlo Maria Giulini led the last outing in 1972.

Composed three years after his final opera, Guillaume Tell, Rossini’s Stabat Mater was written for the exclusive use of a small chapel in Madrid and not initially intended for broader circulation. Already embarked on an early retirement that would extend for nearly the final four decades of his life, the indolent composer initially only completed six of the planned 12 sections, splitting the assignment with a friend, Giovanni Tadolini (Rossini, to his discredit, privately passed off Tadolini’s contributions as his own). Lawsuits and various complications prompted a reluctant Rossini to return to the score and a decade later, he completed the Stabat Mater, the final version of which is entirely his own creation.

The tortuous history notwithstanding, the Stabat Mater is Rossini’s late masterpiece, a striking blend of the gracious melody familiar from his operas cast within a more gaunt and serious style. The work also shows a grander touch and audacity in its harmonic language; the music even hearkens back to earlier church polyphony, some of the sections for unaccompanied chorus at times echoing Palestrina.

The text reflects the lamentation of Jesus’s mother Mary at the foot of the cross, and while much of the music is aptly somber and ruminative, the score is varied masterfully with individual spotlight moments for each of the four soloists.

Krassimira Stoyanova, Ekaterina Gubanova, Dmitry Korchak and Eric Owens were the soloists in Rossini’s “Stabat Mater.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In this work the vocal quartet tends to take a leading role over the chorus. With a lineup of first-class singers, Thursday night’s performance gave the Stabat Mater’s valedictory essence all due expressive weight. Yet there was also an informal “sing-off” quality to the proceedings, with each terrific solo moment topped by the next in a kind of serendipitous vocal battle of the bands.

Tenor Dmitry Korchak was even more impressive here than in his Lyric Opera debut last fall as Orphée. In the oddly lilting “Cujus animam gementem,” the tenor sang with strong, youthful spirit, undaunted by the high tessitura, tossing off a thrilling top C.

A memorable Desdemona in Muti’s 2011 concert performances of Verdi’s Otello, Krassimira Stoyanova made her riveting account of the “Inflammatus et accensus” the true climax of the work. Singing with gleaming, refulgent tone, the Bulgarian soprano soared over the chorus and orchestra.

Following her lackluster role debut as Carmen at Lyric Opera a year ago, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova righted the local ledger with fine singing, particularly her impassioned rendering of the cavatina, “Fac ut portem Christi mortem.”

Eric Owens’ vast subterranean bass was more subdued than usual, though he brought refined vocalism and the requisite drama to his solo moments.

When leading the music of his greatest Italian compatriots–which he clearly loves the most– Muti is invariably at his best and such was the case again. The CSO music director has no peer in this repertory, and from the dark ceremonial opening, Muti drew powerful, rich and resplendent playing from the orchestra that was always at the service of Rossini’s score. There were innumerable felicitous details of vocal and instrumental dynamics throughout yet all were delineated in a natural, organic manner that never felt pedantic or overemphatic.

Under Duain Wolfe’s direction, the CSO Chorus members sealed the performance, conveying the ecclesiastical solemnity of their unaccompanied passages yet letting it rip in the fiery, operatic  moments with the concluding four-part fugue edge-of-the-seat exciting.

The main work on the first half, Luigi Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn, was heard in its belated CSO debut. 

The work’s historic backstory is also unusual, and even surreal, as related in Philip Huscher’s program note. Cherubini wrote this deeply felt homage to his friend and colleague Haydn after hearing a false rumor in Paris that the senior composer had passed away. (Reading his obituaries months later, Haydn wryly remarked that had he known of the memorial concert of Mozart’s Requiem planned in his memory, he would have traveled to Paris to conduct it himself.) Cherubini hastily withdrew the premature tribute until the composer’s actual death four years later.

Scored for three solo singers and orchestra, Cherubini’s Chant sue la mort is a small masterpiece. The elegiac expression is immediately sounded with a dirge-like theme for three horns. A rising phrase for winds leads to an extraordinary passage for cellos–four-part contrapuntal writing of quietly majestic power, played with burnished corporate tone.

The trio of soloists–soprano Stoyanova and tenors Korchak and Enea Scala–found a nice middle ground between operatic fervor and spiritual gravitas within the allegorical text.

Some unmuffled coughs drew an over-the-shoulder glare from the maestro, but give Muti all due credit for unearthing this offbeat gem. The conductor’s meticulous balancing and innate sympathy made an eloquent case for Cherubini, even more than with the 2012 CSO performances he led of the composer’s Requiem in C minor. Perhaps the time has come for a broad, large-scale reevaluation of Cherubini’s vast oeuvre, not least his nearly two-dozen operas. 

The concert began with Mozart’s Kyrie, K.341. As the Köchel number indicates, this choral excerpt was long thought to be a product of Mozart’s Salzburg years. More recent scholarship believes it to be written much later, likely from a large church work the composer never lived to complete.

Whatever the chronology, the Kyrie plumbs a remarkable degree of expressive depth in just seven minutes. Muti drew a stately, reverent performance, the Chicago Symphony Chorus singing beautifully and conveying the setting’s subdued tragedy.

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

Posted in Performances

6 Responses to “Muti, CSO wrap season in resplendent style with rare vocal masterworks”

  1. Posted Jun 23, 2018 at 11:31 am by S. P.

    Who is the principal trumpet? Wow!
    I saw the last two programs and he was amazing!
    Certainly, he reminds me of Herseth. Is the legendary brass section coming back…?
    Bravi CSO and bravo Maestro Muti.


  2. Posted Jun 23, 2018 at 12:13 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    The guest principal trumpet this week was Esteban Batallán, principal of the Granada City Orchestra in Spain.

    Guest principal oboe was Nathan Hughes, principal of the Metropolitan Opera.

  3. Posted Jun 24, 2018 at 1:16 am by Owen Youngman

    By Saturday’s Cherubini, the maestro had progressed from an over-the-shoulder glare. He stopped the orchestra, ordered the coughers to show some “control,” and restarted from the top.

  4. Posted Jun 24, 2018 at 5:20 pm by Stefan

    Coughing and other audience noises are a problem at Symphony Center, more so than for example at the Milwaukee Symphony, but I find Muti’s way of handling the situation very off-putting.

    On Saturday, after stopping the orchestra, he made what I consider some very condescending and aggressive little remarks to the audience. It is true that some patrons make very little effort to dampen the noise, but when more than 2000 people sit together in a very small place with very dry air, coughing will occur, and “controlling” it is in most cases unfortunately not an option.

    I have seen other conductors address the problem in a friendly, even slightly humorous way, without creating an awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere like Muti does. As a long-time (non-coughing) subscriber, I take issue when he calls a loyal audience a “circus.”

    Management should find better ways to create awareness that there is a problem and ask patrons to keep noise at a minimum.

  5. Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 9:57 am by Jizungu

    I agree with Stefan on every point (including the problem of patrons who don’t even bother to cover their mouths). What I find worse are cellphones, which people can control. Toward the end of yesterday afternoon’s Stabat Mater, as the massed chorus sank into a tender, hushed “Amen,” some goddam phone went off–and on & on. It being the final notes of the concert (and the season), I suppose even Muti felt there was nothing to do about it.

    A suggestion. At the start of each concert, perhaps an orchestra member could make an announcement from the stage, like this: “Welcome to Symphony Center. We invite you to introduce yourself to the fellow music lover sitting next to you and ask if they’ve turned off their cell phone.” Repeat after intermission.

  6. Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm by Yige

    I want to correct one thing. On Saturday, what maestro said wasn’t “don’t cough”, but “don’t TALK”. And he certainly didn’t call anyone “circus”.

    (The complete speech was short, roughly being “The piece begins with pianissimo and it is so difficult to play. They are trying their best. So, don’t TALK!”)

    There’s just no excuse for TALKING during concerts.

    Even for coughing, 90% of time, it can be “controlled”. Remember several years ago when MTT went backstage to take out some cough drops after the 1st movement of Mahler 9 and threw them to the audience? Then, I experienced the quietest audience in this hall during the remaining three movements. I would doubt those cough drops MTT gave out could even reach the 10th row. That’s to say, it wasn’t those cough drops helped the audience keeping quite. Most coughs can be controlled. But too many people wouldn’t make an effort, until they were reminded.

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