Saturday, February 8, 2014

Concert Review: Muti Conducts Schubert Mass (Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Last night, I attended a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. On the podium was one of the international stars of classical music, CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti (I could go on and on about the maestro, who recently signed a five-year contract extension through 2020, but I will spare you, dear readers). It was my first time seeing him conduct in almost two years. Caleb Widmer, my worship pastor and boss at Calvary Memorial Church, joined me for the concert.

The program was part of an exploration of the works of Franz Schubert that stretches the entire second half of this season. All of the works on this weekend’s program were unfamiliar to me yet all ones I was very interested to hear.

The program began with Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in C Major, a “tipping of the hat” to Gioacchino Rossini, with whose work Schubert was quite taken at the time, and I definitely heard the Rossini-inspired musical energy.

Second was Ennio Morricone’s Voices from the Silence, a piece written some twelve years ago (with Muti’s encouragement) in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This piece surprised me. I had been expecting something along the lines of Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a very meditative, cathartic tone poem. Instead, the piece was something of a sound picture tracing various occasions of human oppression. There was a brief narration and prerecorded sounds (of voices from oppressed cultures, as I understand it) added to the mix of orchestra and chorus. I want to look for a recording and listen again – as Caleb said, there was almost too much happening in the piece to properly absorb it all.

After intermission was Schubert’s Mass No. 5 in A-flat Major. Muti and the musicians dedicated this weekend’s performances of the Mass to the memory of the recently departed Claudio Abbado, Muti’s fellow Italian conductor and a frequent collaborator with the CSO.

Schubert was one of the least religious of the major Western composers to write settings of the Latin Mass, but musically speaking, the work was profound. My favorite portions of this setting are the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” (from the Gloria) and the “Dona Nobis Pacem” (from the Agnus Dei). Program annotator Phillip Huscher noted that this particular Mass was not written for any particular occasion or commission; rather, one could say Schubert wrote it for himself. My knowledge of Schubert is limited, but I would not necessarily put his A-flat Mass in the “intimate” music category (compared, for example, to his Mass No. 2 in G Major, which I studied in college). The orchestra and chorus – and soloists – delivered a compelling, brilliant performance.

Another interesting note: this weekend marked the first CSO subscription concert performance of the Schubert overture, and the first CSO performance of any kind of the Morricone piece and the Schubert Mass. Three of the four soloists in the Mass were making their CSO debuts, and the fourth soloist and the Morricone narrator their CSO subscription concert debuts. It was a satisfying evening of music. My congratulations to Maestro Muti, Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, the soloists, orchestra, and chorus – and my thanks as always to Phillip Huscher for the excellent notes on the program.

This program has one final performance, TONIGHT at 8 PM at Symphony Center – I highly recommend it if you do not already have plans!

P.S. Here is Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein's review of the Thursday performance

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