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The CSO soars whether in revery or immediacy

Maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing Giuseppe Martucci's "La canzone dei ricordi" ("The song of memories"). (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

There are times when you might walk into Symphony Center convinced there is little hope for the future of mankind but then, as you leave the hall a couple of hours later, find yourself fully convinced that civilization is worth preserving.

Such was the case Friday afternoon as Maestro Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert whose first half soared on the wings of the remembrance of things past and the beauty of the human voice, and whose second half was so immediate and propulsive it felt like you were being carried aloft on the composer’s brain waves.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Highly recommended

When: Oct. 1 at 8 p.m.

Where: Symphony Center,

220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $43 – $261

Info: (312) 294-3000;

http://www.cso.org

Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato takes a bow after performing “Le canzone dei ricordi” (“The song of memories”) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato takes a bow after performing “Le canzone dei ricordi” (“The song of memories”) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The program began with two rarely heard works by Italian composers of the late 19th century — Alfredo Catalani’s lyrical, time-suspending “Contemplazione” and Giuseppe Martucci’s gently haunting orchestral song cycle, “La canzone dei ricordi” (“The song of memories”). Both are receiving their first ever performances by the CSO this week, and both possess the power to shift the metabolism into a dreamily suspended state.

“Contemplazione” begins with the orchestra’s low strings and then adds violins (as well as a few riffs on timpani and the sound of horns ), and its effortless lyricism gradually swells to suggest subdued ardor. Delicate but rapturously beautiful, the piece is devoid of bombast or pretense and maintains a singing quality throughout. A perfect daydream.

Of course Maestro Muti is never happier than when the human voice is added to the voices of his orchestra, and if the words and music are both from the pens of Italians, so much the better. Making her CSO debut in “La canzone dei ricordi,” was Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, whose exquisite, understated rendering of Martucci’s songs, based on the shimmering, achingly romantic poems of Rocco Emanuele Pagliara, captured the sense of love, loss, longing and memory, with the potent perfume of the ardor of the past finally drifting off into space.

The singer’s honeyed, wide-ranging voice, which has the warm glow of experience tempered by time, is ideally matched to the music. The orchestra creates a sort of natural landscape for these seven songs — with music that is full of fire at times, then like a gentle breeze, then suggestive of rippling water and gentle waves. At moments the sound is almost imperceptible, and when even the lingering memories of love vanish, so, it seems, does the music, turning into a veil of gossamer sound. Throughout, the seamless synchrony between the orchestra and DiDonato — who wiped tears from her eyes when it was all over — was wondrous.

The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” which is set in motion by four strong chords that suggest we are entering the soul of a mighty creative force about to take us on a wild ride through his musical imagination as it unspools. As widely familiar as this work might be, Muti and the CSO make you hear it anew, infusing it with a grand singing beauty, alternately frenzied and rapturous. And if the first half of the program was about reliving emotions of times past, this rendering of Beethoven is very much about the here and now.

With its driving energy and quicksilver shifts of mood, the first movement can be dancing one moment, all but galloping the next — at turns stormy and churning, then more quietly insistent and always full of surprises. The second movement has a more probing quality, one that suggests the complexity of Beethoven’s emotions and his ability to find their orchestral equivalents. A furious sense of propulsion takes over in the third movement, yet finds a way to unwind into moments of calm. An almost irrational exuberance takes hold in the final movement.

In his program notes for the piece, Philip Huscher quotes Richard Wagner, who called this Beethoven symphony “the apotheosis of dance” but then notes that choreographers have found it far from “easily danceable.” It might be that rather than imaging this as a work that echoes the many musicians in the orchestra, it would work far better as a dance for four bravura soloists, with each capturing the inner workings of the mind of a genius. Just a thought.