IN PERFORMANCE

Muti concludes CSO season in triumphant blaze of choral sound

Riccardo Muti has never needed the excuse of a big anniversary year to celebrate the music of his beloved Giuseppe Verdi. Yet so plentiful are the opportunities to go the extra distance in this bicentennial year that you can hardly blame the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director for seizing them with relish, even a certain pride of ownership.

Muti is in fact surrounding the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth with a host of CSO events at the start of the coming season, including concert performances of the opera "Macbeth" and a special performance of the Verdi Requiem on the exact anniversary date, Oct. 10. Today's foremost Verdi interpreter will be very busy, and the musical prospects are tantalizing.

Audiences are getting a foretaste with the rewarding program of sacred choral music Muti is directing to conclude the CSO subscription season this weekend at Symphony Center.

Its centerpiece is Verdi's valedictory masterpiece, the "Four Sacred Pieces." The Italian maestro is unsurpassed in this repertory, and the performance he drew from his orchestra and the mighty Chicago Symphony Chorus on Thursday night combined dedicated musicality and deep religious feeling to produce one of the great musical events of the season.

An audience that had rudely injected its rustling and coughing into the music heard earlier fell silent as Muti plumbed the operatic drama of the second and fourth pieces, "Stabat Mater" and "Te Deum," both scored for full choir and orchestra. Using a choral contingent of 156 voices, he balanced rhetorical force and spiritual inwardness as firmly in the former work as he weighed the antiphonal plainchant and thrilling declamatory utterances in the latter.

Chorus soprano Kimberly Gunderson brought a proper sense of awed humility to her brief solo at the end of the "Te Deum."

But it was the lesser-known first and third pieces, both scored for smaller unaccompanied chorus, that really tested the mettle of director Duain Wolfe's choristers, since here the voices stood fully exposed. The curious melodic intervals and advanced harmonies of the austere "Ave Maria" are tricky to bring off successfully but the 45-voice choir did so very well. And in the "Laudi alla Vergine Maria," the only piece of the set not sung in Latin, composed to a text from Dante's "Divine Comedy," the women's voices were divine indeed, clear and pure of sound, exact in blend, diction and intonation.

All the way through, Muti took obvious pains to observe Verdi's detailed instructions, molding this phrase and that to underline expressive meaning while maintaining a seamless flow of sound over a firm rhythmic pulse. Verdi performances today simply don't come any finer than this. With a choral aggregation as superbly prepared as the Chicago Symphony Chorus, how could it miss?

The shorter choral works that began the program, Mozart's "Ave verum corpus" and Vivaldi's "Magnificat (R. 611), were well worth hearing in themselves.

In Mozart's tiny motet, a solemn contemplation of the crucified Christ, the choral sounds floated in an ethereal hush above the string orchestra.

The effect stood in marked contrast to the exultant majesty of the Vivaldi work, heard here in the version with solo arias at the center. Oddly neglected even by early music groups, the "Magnificat" was having its belated CSO premiere.

Each aria bears the name of the girl in the choir of the Pieta, the orphanage in Venice where Vivaldi worked, whom he expected to sing it. Muti assigned all five arias to a single singer, Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, who brought admirable agility to the coloratura passages, along with line, focus and devout feeling to everything else. Supporting her were smoothly dovetailed choral singing (the awed quiet of the "Et misericordia" was realized especially beautifully) and crisp orchestral playing, with organ and harpsichord as the continuo group.

At the end of the concert, the audience jumped to its feet to award the performers, especially the chorus and director Wolfe, a fervent, richly deserved ovation.

The performance will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $40-$299; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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