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CSO, Riccardo Muti deliver clarity in Carnegie Hall season opener

Updated: October 4, 2012 12:21AM

NEW YORK CITY — Opening night of the Carnegie Hall season is just like that at Symphony Center in Chicago.

You know, Chelsea Clinton and Renee Fleming walking down the stairs from the boxes together. Mercedes Bass and the Oscar de la Rentas chairing the investment-banker, hedge- fund-manager-laden, post-concert gala dinner.

And a historic venue with perfect acoustics.

OK. All of those things are different.

But there was at least one common denominator between Symphony Ball on Saturday and the Carnegie Hall gala here Wednesday night: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Riccardo Muti.

The glittering Carnegie crowd gave them a rare eight-minute ovation even after Muti told host Charlie Rose on his PBS show Tuesday night that Chicago and the lead philharmonics of Vienna and Berlin were the world’s best three orchestras and that the New York Philharmonic, going through a gray period these days, is not in that rank. (Muti did make clear his respect for that group’s players, as opposed to its management or leadership, in a rather left-handed way: “They are very good musicians.” Period.)

Another shared point between the home and away events came from the no-nonsense approach favored by Muti and the CSO. One piece. 106 musicians. 135 members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. 33 members of the Chicago Children’s Choir. No encores.

The piece? Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” presented for free with the same forces Sept. 21 in Millennium Park. A popular work both with the general public and well-heeled donors.

But in the best performance Muti and Chicago have yet given together of this work over two seasons, the Italian conductor could build on their prior collaboration. And he could present orchestra, choruses and new vocal soloists in an acoustic environment that favored his idea that this is a more subtle, lyrical and even gentle work than indicated by the many raucous, undisciplined and stadium-scaled performances that Orff’s profane cantata often receives.

Italian soprano Rosa Feola and Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen made their daunting, range-riding parts seem almost effortless and wholly winning. Duain Wolfe’s CSO Chorus was completely back in the saddle of clarity and musicality that have long-been its hallmarks. The orchestra itself reminded listeners that, with the right artist on the podium, it can make any work sound clear, elegant, alluring.

There was no talk of the 48-hour musicians’ strike last month and no apparent effects in either the afternoon rehearsal or evening concert. With two more programs here Thursday and Friday — mixed repertoire heard in Chicago this season and last — the desire for these masters, whether on Michigan Avenue, in Mexico (where the orchestra heads next week), or Europe or in Asia (where they will travel this winter) was as clear as the sound in Mr. Carnegie’s 121-year-old Midtown culture palace: People want illumination, and this team delivers it.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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