Since Riccardo Muti took office at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010, he has made it a tradition to perform a free community concert at the beginning of each season. The maestro did so again Wednesday night in west suburban Cicero, some 24 hours before leading his orchestra in the opening subscription concert of his fourth season as music director at Symphony Center. Their strong showing at both events augured well for the months ahead.
The CSO's appearance at Morton East High School drew a clamorous, near-capacity crowd – nearly 2,400, according to official estimate – even as a major thunderstorm raged across the area, setting off fire alarms in the building and triggering a false evacuation signal in the auditorium minutes before the concert was to begin. Muti and the musicians took all of this with their usual good grace.
At the end of the Brahms-Verdi concert, the maestro turned to the audience and quipped, "Now I realize why I spent so many years studying Cicero." The conductor was, of course, referring to the ancient Roman statesman and orator, whose name he pronounced "Cheech-air-oh," again with a wink to the crowd.
Turning serious, he thanked the audience for its respectful silence during the performance, adding that music is "among the few things that can bring people together" in "a wild world" filled with "wars and crimes."
Earlier CSO Association President Deborah F. Rutter offered welcoming remarks that CSO horn player Oto Carrillo translated into Spanish for the benefit of Latino audience members.
Certainly the Verdi portion of the program – vocal and orchestral excerpts from the operas "La Forza del Destino" and "Nabucco" -- sustained the message of good will and benevolence.
Parts of the Wednesday and Thursday programs served as teasers for the two major Verdi undertakings of Muti's fall residency, a concert version of the opera "Macbeth" and a sold-out Symphony Center performance of the Requiem to be simulcast in Millennium Park and streamed live worldwide on the composer's 200th birthday, Oct. 10.
On Wednesday a chorus made up of five city and suburban amateur choirs delivered a moving rendition of "Va, pensiero" – the chorus of Hebrew exiles from "Nabucco" – its softly floating closing measures a good foil for the big and brassy overture to "Nabucco" that followed.
Less successful, as a whole, were snippets from "La Forza del Destino."
The warm timbre and musicality of soprano Barbara Frittoli were apt for the softer passages of Leonora's prayer, "Madre, pietosa Vergine," and the second-act finale. But a now-detached upper register betrayed a disturbingly wide vibrato and yielded yelps in lieu of squarely placed high notes. Luca Dall'Amico's solid bass-baritone lent due gravity to Padre Guardiano's music. The male voices of the Chicago Symphony Chorus brought devotion and fervor to their contributions.
The Brahms Second Symphony was played in the maestro's familiar molto grazioso (very gracious) manner, although the Orchestra Hall performance was tighter and better-sounding.
If Muti was boffo in Cicero, he was brilliant in Chicago, drawing performances of astonishing precision, strength and suppleness at Thursday's subscription opener.
Along with a repeat of the Brahms symphony, the program held the ballet music from "Macbeth," "Forza del Destino" Overture and the first CSO performance of a charming rarity by Johann Strauss Jr., the overture to his first operetta, "Indigo and the Forty Thieves."
The three-part suite of dances Verdi composed for the 1865 Paris performances of his revised version of "Macbeth" will be included in Muti's complete rendition of the opera here (beginning Sept. 28), but it worked well as a stand-alone piece, with the CSO's powerful elegance on full display. Principal cello John Sharp and principal bassoon David McGill were very fine in their duet.
The maestro lingered lovingly over the Strauss overture, making music out of a piece some would dismiss as an amiable trifle. Trenchant accents and taut forward motion heightened the blazing theatricality of Muti's "Forza" overture.
Muti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and vocal soloists, will present selections from Verdi's operas "Macbeth," "Ernani," "Nabucco," "La Forza del Destino" and "I Vespri Siciliani" at Symphony Ball, 7 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $58-$194 (concert only); 312-294-3000, cso.org.