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Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Verdi program a triumph in debut of live webcast

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance Verdi  Requiem with Riccardo Muti conducting is screened Millennium Park as part first-ever live

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Verdi Requiem, with Riccardo Muti conducting, is screened in Millennium Park as part of the first-ever live webcast of a CSO concert. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

To extend their geographic reach and expand their audiences, opera companies and orchestras are eagerly seeking ways to capitalize on new technologies and disseminate their musicmaking in ways never imaginable before.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus joined these efforts for the first time Thursday evening, transmitting live a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass not only on a new 22½-by-40-foot screen in the Pritzker Pavilion but also worldwide via more than 40 classical websites.

It is too soon to know how many people watched via the Internet, but Orchestra Hall was sold-out and a CSO spokeswoman estimated that another 3,200-3,500 people saw the performance in Millennium Park on a crisp, lovely fall night.

The timing was hardly coincidental. Thursday marked the 200th anniversary to the day of Verdi’s birth, and music director Riccardo Muti and the orchestra wanted to celebrate the milestone in a distinctive, attention-grabbing way. And by just about any measure, the undertaking succeeded in spades.

Muti and the musicians and singers delivered a superlative, gripping performance that fully conveyed the massive, emotional sweep of this soaring choral masterpiece. And at least in the pavilion, where I saw the concert, the complex technology worked flawlessly, except for one tiny skip in the transmission early on. The LED screen delivered surprisingly high-resolution imagery, and the sensitive amplification system vividly conveyed the range of sounds down to the softest pianissimo.

Except for the stiff, stilted introduction, the taping of the concert was masterful, with camera angles from all over the inside of Orchestra Hall and precisely timed up-close glimpses of the singers and musicians at key moments.

Among the Pritzker audience, former professional musicians Thea Potanos and Daniel Balsam could have hardly been more enthusiastic about the Millennium Park experience, heaping praise on Muti and the concert and the outdoor broadcast.

“I actually liked watching Muti from the front and not the back, and I enjoyed seeing the faces of particular people in the orchestraup-close,” Potanos said. At the same time, they agreed it was not the same as seeing the orchestra in Orchestra Hall. “But it was a close second,” Balsam said.

Natalia Sanchez, however, was disappointed. She attended the CSO’s in-person performance in September 2012 in Millennium Park, and she couldn’t understand why the ensemble didn’t do the same thing again. “Not that it wasn’t good, but . . .” she said.

A funeral mass might seem like an odd choice for this concert. But Verdi’s celebrated take on the venerable rite is almost operatic in scope and offers the huge scale and visceral appeal that such a mass-audience event demands.

Muti is rightly regarded as the greatest living conductor of the great composer’s music, and he summoned his vast knowledge and experience in this near-definitive performance, making sure that every note, every word and, indeed, every breath counted.

From the somber tranquility of the opening to the thrillingly thunderous, bold and angry “Dies irae” to the hushed, hopeful conclusion, Muti drew the maximum expressiveness from every shift in tempo, dynamics and phrasing. And he paid attention to the minutest details, such as his subtle handling of the transition into a short instrumental interlude in the Offertorio.

Sometimes using no more than a raised eyebrow or a facial expression to signal a cue or convey the sound he wanted, Muti seemed completely at one with the musical forces arranged in front of him, drawing the best both from the orchestra musicians and its top-flight, well-prepared chorus. The soloists are so integral to this work, and the four who took part Thursday — soprano Tatiana Serjan, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, tenor Mario Zeffiri and bass Ildar Abdrazakov ­— were nothing short of superb individually, and they meshed in the ensemble sections beautifully.

Particularly notable was Abdrazakov, who possesses the big, resonant voice expected of a bass but was also able deliver moments of surprising lightness and delicacy, as he showed in his solo in “Confutatis maledictus.”

But no one stood out more than Barcellona, whose spellbinding, amber-hued voice and nuanced expressiveness was ideally suited to this work. She achingly conveyed, for example, the forlorn sense of hopelessness and pain in “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?”

While it will be impossible to repeat all the elements that went into this concert, the technical success of this foray into high-tech transmissions seems sure to lead to more in the future.

“I like that that they did this,” Potanos said of the concert broadcast. “I hope they do it again.”

It was hard to disagree.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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