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Bravo, Verdi! The CSO kicks off season of homage to the Italian opera genius

4/11/13 8:19:47 PM .Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Riccardo Muti Music Director.Bach B Minor Mass ..© Todd Rosenberg/CSO... © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

4/11/13 8:19:47 PM .Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Riccardo Muti Music Director.Bach B Minor Mass ..© Todd Rosenberg/CSO... © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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As a proud son of Italy—born in southern Italy, “Napoli,” as he invariably points out — Riccardo Muti makes no apologies for his emotional response to the world around him. And when it comes to music, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director has a passion that stands above all — a long-standing devotion to the works of Giuseppe Verdi.

One of the world’s greatest opera composers, the creator of “La traviata,” “Aida,” “Rigoletto” and more than 20 other stage works —Verdi was born Oct. 10, 1813. The CSO and Muti are celebrating the bicentennial of his birth with a vengeance over the next few weeks. Joined by soloists and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, they begin the celebrations Wednesday with a free concert of Verdi choruses, arias and overtures along with a Brahms symphony at 7 p.m. at Morton East High School, 2423 S. Austin, Cicero.

On Sept. 19 the CSO’s launches its 2013-14 Symphony Center season with two orchestral pieces drawn from Verdi operas, the Brahms Symphony No. 2 and a dash of Johann Strauss Jr., his Overture to “Indigo and the Forty Thieves.”

The CSO’s annual gala, at 7 p.m. Sept. 21, will be all Verdi with choruses, arias and overtures from five operas including “Nabucco” and “Macbeth.” A full-length concert version of “Macbeth” is scheduled Sept. 28, Oct. 1, 4 and 6. The whole Verdi autumn shebang wraps up on Oct. 10, the composer’s 200th birthday, with a performance of his highly theatrical Requiem. In a first for the CSO, that Symphony Center concert will be simulcast to an audience at Millennium Park and streamed live and on demand on the CSO’s Facebook page, and

Muti has conducted Verdi operas all over the world and is considered to be the foremost Verdi conductor of his generation. In his 2011 autobiography, “Riccardo Muti/An Autobiography/First the Music, Then the Words,” he wrote about the responsibility he feels when he conducts Verdi. In Muti’s view, the composer explores every corner of human experience with rare depth and understanding. Performances must reflect that depth.

“If one day in the great beyond Wagner or Beethoven or Spontini were to tell me, ‘You were wrong, Riccardo,’ I’d be able to take it,” he wrote. “But if Verdi were to tell me that — Verdi, to whom I gave my devoted love, and for whom I stood ready to retreat into an ideal orchestral pit and disappear — it would be terrible.”

During his four seasons as CSO music director, Muti has passed that devotion on to CSO players. Over their 120-plus seasons, the CSO has performed a fair number of Verdi operas. During their first season, in 1891, they accompanied the visiting Metropolitan Opera in performances of Verdi’s “Otello.” Muti and the CSO presented “Otello” in 2011, and the CSO recently released a CD of those performances on their CSO Resound label. Last month at Ravinia the orchestra performed “Aida” with conductor James Conlon, the festival’s music director.

But with a few exceptions, among them the Requiem, Verdi is mostly missing in action on symphonic concerts. Unlike Wagner, whose operas contain overtures and purely orchestral sections that can be performed as free-standing pieces, Verdi’s operas are a complex vocal-orchestral web. Which is one reason why performing Verdi under a conductor like Muti is so exciting for CSO musicians. They’re playing music they haven’t performed a thousand times before. And they’re doing it with conductor who is crazy in love with every note of the score sitting on their music stands.

Violinist Melanie Kupchynsky, a member of the CSO since 1989, cherishes the opportunity.

“I remember when we played Bartok with Solti,” said Kupchynsky, referring to Georg Solti, CSO music director from 1969 to 1991. “He knew Bartok, he actually studied with him. At the time I was too young to appreciate what a gift that was to be able to play that music with this person who had this personal connection and that passion.

“Years go by and Muti appears in our life,” she said. “And here it is again, this unbelievable moment when you have this gift of a person who is not just an expert and such a consummate musician but also a real passionate lover of Verdi. He brings everything to life for us, in such a way that you’re hanging on every word when he talks about it. It’s an unbelievably rare treat.”

For complete details about the CSO’s upcoming concerts, visit or call (312) 294-3000. Symphony Center is located at 220 S. Michigan.

Wynne Delacoma is a Sun-Times freelance writer.

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