The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on a roll.
For three consecutive weeks, the ensemble has been led by a veteran, world-class conductor, each holding a major past or present post with the orchestra and each delivering a performance befitting their standing.
Former principal conductor Bernard Haitink helmed a program that included a probing look at Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, and last week, former music director Daniel Barenboim returned for the first time since his departure, with a dynamic, in-the-moment take on Smetana’s “Ma vlast.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Riccardo Muti, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 9-10
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Thursday evening in Orchestra Hall, it was music director Riccardo Muti’s turn, and he did not disappoint. The maestro is renowned as one of the world’s leading interpreters of the music of Giuseppe Verdi, and he again vividly demonstrated why.
Muti and the Chicago Symphony returned to the composer’s Requiem Mass, which they recorded live during performances in 2009, winning two Grammy Awards one year later. Verdi wrote this towering work in 1874 in remembrance of poet and author Alessandro Manzoni, whom he greatly admired.
The composer gave the Mass the dramatic sweep of his operas and infused it with turbulent, competing emotions, all of which swirled to life in a thrilling, visceral performance that was at once chilling and comforting, moving and unnerving.
Muti and the orchestra brilliantly conveyed the thundering, raw fury of the “Dies irae,” with principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh pounding two giant bass drums at the same time, setting it against equally compelling quieter sections like the forlorn “Quid sum miser” and the reflective, elegiac opening of the “Requiem and Kyrie.”
The maestro has a knack for selecting soloists, and he chose four first-rate international singers here whose voices nicely meshed – soprano Vittoria Yeo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, tenor Piotr Beczala and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy.
The standout was arguably Belosselskiy, who can display considerable power but also surprising delicacy with his flexible, embracing voice. He had high points aplenty, including the plaintive plea for mercy, “Salva me,” in the “Rex tremendae” and his expressive solo in the “Confutatis” with his nuanced shifts in phrasing and timbre.
Making her Chicago Symphony debut, Yeo, a South Korean soprano who has worked regularly with Muti since 2015, showed herself to be a disciplined, communicative singer with a bright, soaring upper register. Barcellona, Belosselskiy and she will rejoin the orchestra on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, 2019, when it presents the Requiem Mass again as part of an Asian tour.
But the bulk of the praise should arguably go to the orchestra’s fine Chorus, numbering nearly 150 voices for this performance. Superbly prepared as usual by director Duain Wolfe, it delivered technically refined singing that was minutely responsive to the every twist and turn, from the exciting double chorus in the “Sanctus” to the assertively whispered take on “Quantus tremor” section of the “Dies irae.”
Muti masterfully wove all these elements into a seamless, encompassing whole, with the orchestra delivering plenty of stand-out moments of its own. These included principal bassoonist Keith Buncke’s extended mournful solo in the “Quid sum miser,” and the four trumpeters on the balcony above the stage and the rest of the brilliant brass in the “Tuba miram.”
This week’s performances of Verdi’s Requiem Mass are part of “A Time for Reflection – A Message of Peace,” a set of programs the orchestra is presenting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But they took on another meaning Thursday evening.
Muti almost never speaks from the podium, but he made an exception after he stepped onto the stage. He dedicated the concert to the victims of what he called a “massacre,” a mass shooting a day earlier at a country-western bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., asking the audience to stand for a moment of reflection.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.
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