Muti, CSO mark an Italian tragedy in searing Schuman premiere

Fri Feb 22, 2019 at 12:50 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in William Schuman’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It’s a fair bet that most people who filled Orchestra Hall Thursday night came for Mozart’s Requiem—as failsafe a bit of classical box office bait as currently exists.

But worthy as the Mozart was, it was the searing, devastating account of William Schuman’s Symphony No. 9 (“Le fosse Ardeatine”) that made the evening memorable. Heard in its Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiere, this event was a highlight not just of the current season, but of Riccardo Muti’s near-decade tenure as music director in Chicago.

Schuman wrote his symphony in 1968 after visiting the Ardeatine Caves, where 335 Italian civilians—men, women and children—were ruthlessly massacred by the Nazis in 1944, in a reprisal following an attack on German soldiers by the Italian resistance. 

Cast in three continuous sections and scored for large orchestra, the symphony is not directly programmatic in its depiction of the horrific events. Rather, Schuman’s symphony is more of an impressionistic reaction to the tragedy.

Yet there is no mistaking the bleak, somber landscape and uncompromising intensity of the composer’s musical vision. The work begins in a concentrated whisper (Anteludium), as muted, barely audible violins and cellos stir in searching, broken fragments that at times skirt the edge of tonality. The string phrases grow longer and more firmly projected, set off against the contrast of spirited woodwinds and darkly jagged brass statements.

The central Offertorium is the longest section of the symphony. Here the winds are almost antic in their lighthearted playfulness at times, suggesting, said Schuman, something of the unlived lives of the youngest Ardeatine victims. Yet the music grows increasingly agitated and relentless  in its violence with explosive outbursts from the brass and percussion, delivered by the CSO with seismic intensity. 

The scherzo-like winds take on a restless frenzy that seems almost unhinged, as if searching in desperation for a safe haven. This is not music of peace but of intense and uncompromising violence. The outbursts grow even more cataclysmic, and Muti and the players ratcheted up the symphonic fury to an almost unbearable level with each iteration.

In the Postludium one might think that with the return of the fragile, searching string music, there will be some kind of peace found in a consolatory conclusion. But there is no solace or relief and the machine-like intensity returns with even greater metallic aggression, the symphony ending with one last angry chord.

This score clearly has great personal meaning to the Italian conductor and Muti led the CSO in a shattering performance, marking this 75th anniversary year of the Ardeantine tragedy. Yet for all the sonic tumult, Muti brought meticulous balancing and astounding clarity throughout, even in Schuman’s thickest contrapuntal writing. The entire orchestra distinguished itself in this performance, not least the brass and percussion, especially the driving, powerful timpani work of David Herbert.

The only regret is that Muti and the CSO are not taking the Schuman symphony on their Florida tour next week rather than the more populist, marketing-driven Beethoven and Tchaikovsky standards. (Thursday’s concert marked not only Muti’s first performance of music by William Schuman but the first symphony by an American composer he has conducted since becoming CSO music director nine seasons ago.) 

It was an inspired bit of programming to pair the Schuman symphony with Mozart’s Requiem—anger, tragedy and devastation yielding to reflection and spiritual transcendence. 

Thursday night’s performance of Mozart’s swan song was in line with previous Muti outings of K.626, using the traditional Süssmayr completion and a larger chorus than is usually employed these days. Yet so scrupulous was Muti’s balancing, that even with 92 singers, there was little sense of lumbering heaviness.

Muti’s Mozart style remains Viennese: stately tempos, light solo voices, and refined string-led textures that lent an apt ecclesiastical glow to the proceedings. Just when one was thinking the performance was a bit too relaxed and easy-going, the big dramatic choruses would open up with daunting fire and massed vocal power.

The vocal quartet was solid though seemed inhibited at times, as if concerned that giving too much operatic fervor to their solos would elicit a raised eyebrow from the maestro. Sara Mingardo was first among equals, deploying her still-rich contralto and finding a nice middle ground between the churchy and expressive. Tenor Saimir Pirgu and bass Mika Kares sang with idiomatic point and drama as needed. Benedetta Torre was less consistent; her slender, rather wan soprano was shaky in her initial entrance and the singer’s blankly literal vocalism found little engagement with the text, much less otherworldly radiance in the Lux aeterna.

Mozart’s Requiem is primarily the chorus’s show, and the underutilized CSO ensemble was at their considerable finest. Under the direction of Duain Wolfe, the choral singing was glorious throughout, refined in corporate tone and seamlessly blended.

The massed singers brought impressive agility and dramatic force to the mighty choral fugues, with biblical force in the Rex tremendae. Yet the chorus was also grandly resplendent in the Sanctus and imbued the Lacrimosa and Hostias with an ethereal purity.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 313-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Muti, CSO mark an Italian tragedy in searing Schuman premiere”

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2019 at 8:45 am by Tod Verklärung

    Mr. Johnson’s review of the Schuman performance is spot on. While we are much in Muti’s debt for his decision to program and perform this piece, his complete grasp of the idiom makes Muti’s historical inattention to Schuman all the more curious.

    A recent Tribune article indicates Muti was surprised to hear of the existence of Schuman’s 9th Symphony. He shouldn’t have been. Muti’s immediate predecessor in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy, recorded Schuman Symphonies 3, 6, and 9; as well as the Credenum and New England Triptych. A responsible Music Director (MD), or one with some curiosity, would have known – at least – that he had inherited a podium where such devotion to American music was present.

    Schuman was still alive during Muti’s time in Philadelphia. The composer was a Pulitzer Prize winner who had been head of Juilliard, head of Lincoln Center, and a Kennedy Center honoree. Conductors on the American scene like Bernstein, Leinsdorf, Martinon, Ozawa, and even the conservative George Szell had advocated his music.

    One can only hope Muti’s successor in Chicago will give the best music of the last 100 years the attention he has not.

  2. Posted Feb 24, 2019 at 11:34 am by Daniel F.

    Even Carlo Maria Giulini performed the Schuman Third during his time as MD in Los Angeles. He had the temerity to remove the snare drum part because it was “too noisy”, but dammit he performed the piece!! How has the Dude done by William Schuman? Anybody know?

  3. Posted Feb 25, 2019 at 9:49 pm by Odradek

    The CSO also performed Schuman’s 6th a few years ago, a terrific performance on an all-American program. Good to see signs that Schuman and other mid-century American composers are enjoying a bit of a revival.

  4. Posted Feb 27, 2019 at 11:37 am by Spencer Cortwright

    CSO did Schuman 6 under Slatkin not too long ago. Most orchestras only do New England Tryptich, Symphony for Strings, or Variations on America (orchestration), Schuman’s most populist pieces. So in recent years CSO has done Symphonies 6 and 9. This may be “light” to some idealists, but compared to most (nearly all?) orchestras they are more adventurous, whether you want to believe it or not. Continued bashing of Muti and CSO is getting very tiresome and sounds a lot like elementary schoolyard banter.

  5. Posted Jun 28, 2019 at 1:04 pm by Dwight Owsleys

    Sounds stupendous! Yet another reason to pray for a Carnegie Hall outing of the CSO Please PLEASE Maestro bring this. There must be a discriminating billionaire somewhere who could recognize and finance performances of an American genius as revealed by the messianic Maestro Muti and his FABULOUS CHICAGOANS.

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