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Muti achieves transcendence in a deeply spiritual choral program

6/20/13 9:41:35 PM 
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti Music Director
Chicago Symphony Chorus

Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

6/20/13 9:41:35 PM Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti, Music Director Chicago Symphony Chorus Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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When: 8 p.m. Saturday
and 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $50, $90

Info: (312) 294-3000;

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Updated: July 23, 2013 6:14AM

As he closes his third season as the 10th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti appears more and more personal in his programming. Although he has an encyclopedic familiarity with the repertoire after 45 years as an international conductor, his preferences and emphases have always been his own.

They start with the national composer of his native Italy, Giuseppe Verdi; center around the literal sound of the human voice and the vocal, singing sense (“cantabile” in Italian) of the musical line, and hold always to the idea that a connection spanning centuries exists between all the great composers and styles of Western art music.

All of these ideas are at work in Muti’s presentation and preparation for his last CSO concerts of the season, which began Thursday at Symphony Center. The program of course leads to Verdi: his Four Sacred Pieces, written, remarkably, between the ages of 75 and 84 (1889-1897), existing outside the composer’s operatic catalog, and never even intended to be grouped together or necessarily performed in public.

Before that, Muti presented a small, delicate masterwork, Mozart’s own late “Ave verum corpus,” K. 618, written less than six months before his death in 1791, and a much less known work, Antonio Vivaldi’s 1715 “Magnificat,” in a 25-minute version revised in 1739 near the end of that composer’s life as well.

Oddly, the Mozart has never been performed in full before by the CSO. The Vivaldi had a less surprising delayed premiere. But both works were much less about the performance history of the CSO than about an atmosphere and a context that Muti was creating as prologue to the Verdi.

A reduced chorus for these first-half works sang from low risers onstage rather than up on the choir terrace, even remaining seated as they sang the Mozart. The effect, in a good way, was that of hearing music in a church. Not in a expansive cathedral with attending pomp, but in a place of spiritual introspection, quiet and familiarity.

This was singing, along with strings and light organ and harpsichord accompaniment, that sounded like that of meditative believers more than professional performers, and the result was quite effective. In her CSO debut, Russian mezzo soprano Alisa Kolosova, who had sung with Muti before in Europe, showed a clear, vibratoless voice in the five solo arias, but lacked much color or variety.

These 18th century works laid the groundwork for the late 19th century Verdi pieces. The Muti pianissimos achieved with both chorus and orchestra in the earlier works are even more remarkable when heard in the ever-changing and contrasting Verdi settings.

The CSO Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe, with additional coaching and shaping by Muti, a living legend as today’s pre-eminent Verdi interpreter, was wholly involved, from the a-cappella, woman-only “Laude alla Vergine Maria” (the one piece not in Latin, but in Italian from Dante’s “Paradiso”) to the full scale and orchestrated expanded “Te Deum” (whose closing portions featured the appropriately innocent sound of chorus soprano Kimberly Gunderson).

The mysterious “Ave Maria,” for a cappella mixed chorus, was written as a response to a newspaper game proposing an “enigmatic scale.” With Mozart still floating in listeners’ heads, Verdi and Muti took us to a sound world almost like Debussy or the spiritual side of Wagner. The deeply personal “Stabat Mater,” the last piece Verdi ever wrote, seems to hold all of his “Otello,” and yet also silences and inward sentiments that exist nowhere else.

Like Verdi, Muti both belongs to no church or movement and yet is deeply spiritual. He shares here, from the public podium, quiet reflections of three great composers that remind us, too, of who this very individual musician is.

He’s back in September with programs including music from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” “La forza del destino” and the complete “Macbeth” and then the Requiem in October to salute the composer’s 200th birthday anniversary. Mark your calendars now.

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

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