CSO Chorus shines in Duain Wolfe’s Beethoven swansong

Fri Feb 25, 2022 at 12:19 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, performed Thursday night by the CSO, was the final assignment for Duain Wolfe, who is retiring after 28 years as CSO Chorusmaster. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, signaling the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. Six weeks later, on December 23, Leonard Bernstein led a concert with a multinational orchestra in West Berlin, which he reprised two days later at the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin. The music was Beethoven’s Ninth, for which Bernstein changed the last movement’s lyrics from “Freude” (“joy”) to “Freiheit” (“freedom”), capturing the moment’s spirit of liberation.

As Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Ninth Symphony Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, Russian troops were flooding into Ukraine. Muti spoke to this in some brief remarks before the performance. The maestro said the stage where they play is not a venue for political grandstanding, but a place for joy and peace. Commenting on the words of the Ninth’s choral finale, he observed the former cannot exist without the latter, and declared that artistic endeavor is anathema to warmongering.

The Ninth was the third Beethoven symphony Muti undertook as CSO’s music director, opening the 2014 season with this most iconic score in the symphonic repertoire. Then as now, the outer movements fared best under Muti’s leadership, with the inner ones accomplished but not quite on the same stirring level.

In the opening movement, Muti kept the tension in his gripping reading. This is music of ceaseless motion, which Muti kept restless and angular from the ambiguous open intervals that begin the movement, to its searing climax and punctuating final chords.

While the Ninth is abundantly familiar, it does not play itself, and here as throughout there were isolated moments when the maestro was a bit casual where more incisive leadership was called for. The resulting minor ensemble issues though were an afterthought in an overall compelling landscape.

The opening of the Molto vivace was pristine and almost cackled, though as the movement progressed it settled into a generalized tempo, losing the operative “molto.” This became clear when the thematic material would return in need of a jolt. 

While the variations of the benedictory Adagio did evolve organically, Muti’s rendition felt on the surface, not plumbing the deeply inward meditative qualities of this music. Nonetheless, the musicians’ playing was exquisite, particularly that of the principal winds.

The exuberant finale went best, with Muti’s unquestioned operatic bona fides on full display. The dramatic recitative in the celli and basses felt freshly improvised, and Muti charted a stirring build from the whispered first statement of the “Ode to Joy” theme to its euphoric orchestral statement.

The vocal soloists were largely successful. Bass Tareq Nazmi gave a stentorian invocation with the work’s first vocal entrance. Soprano Janai Brugger and mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano were a stylish pair, with nimble, delicate voices at the top of the quartet. Brugger in particular—subbing for the originally scheduled Lisette Oropesa—was effortless in the highest ranges of Beethoven’s writing. Tenor Issachah Savage was an 11th-hour stand-in for Daniel Johansson, and was overpowered by the orchestra in the movement’s Turkish march, making one question the wisdom of placing the soloists with the chorus at the back of the orchestra; Savage, however, proved a sensitive ensemble singer with his colleagues.

The CSO Chorus was the highlight of the evening, gleaming throughout the final movement’s ecstatic proclamations of joy and brotherhood, where their singing was pristine and powerful without ever feeling forced. As they have for the past 28 years, the chorus was masterfully prepared by Duain Wolfe, who is retiring after these performances. Wolfe leaves a legacy of superb choral accomplishment, for which he will receive the Theodore Thomas Medallion, CSO’s award for distinguished artistic service, following Sunday’s performance.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment