When Wolfgang Mozart’s milestone Requiem is on a program, it is usually the center of attention. But the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first in a set of three concerts Thursday evening was no ordinary program.
The orchestra began with its first-ever – and, it must be said, spotlight-grabbing – performance of the Symphony No. 9 by William Schuman (1910-1992), a once-celebrated American composer whose recognition has unfairly dimmed in recent decades. A rarely heard work of this kind is typically presented by American conductors like Marin Alsop or Leonard Slatkin, who are well-known as champions of modern repertoire from their native country.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Muti, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
But this program was led by the Chicago Symphony’s Italian music director, Riccardo Muti, who came to it in an intriguingly roundabout way via a suggestion over dinner from Steve Robinson, former general manager of WFMT-FM 98.7.
What grabbed Muti’s attention was the work’s sub-title, “Le fosse Ardeatine,” a reference to an uncommonly brutal incident during World War II that is infamous in Italy. Following the killing of 32 German soldiers and two civilians by the Italian Underground in March 1944, the Nazis took 335 mostly innocent Italians to the Ardeatine Caves, a quarry on the outskirts of Rome and shot them in the backs of their heads.
As Schuman explains in his elucidative accompanying notes, the composer and his wife visited the Ardeatine monument in 1967 and were obviously deeply affected. Although he does not try to in some way re-create the events at the caves, the work nonetheless conjures the lingering grief and pain in a deeply moving way.
The three-movement work opens with a spare, ghostly melody in the first violins and cellos, becoming even more stricken and stark in the 12th bar as that same line a half-step higher is picked up by the second violins and violas. A collision of other instruments joins in, including the woodwinds offering nervous bursts of notes.
The piece moves uninterrupted into the Offertorium, the longest and fastest of three sections with what Schuman describes as the fantasies he had of the “variety, promise and aborted lives of the martyrs,” before returning to the elegiac feel of the opening in the final slow movement. But if this second section is at times more upbeat, the overall sense of hurt and loss never dissipates.
Although the symphony is anchored firmly in tonality, it contains sharp dissonances, not so much sarcastic or subversive like those of Shostakovich, but more angry and wounded. There are loud outbursts, including explosive timpani solos and bass drum blasts, but the pervading feeling is nonetheless subdued.
Muti sculpted a vivid, gripping account, conveying the symphony’s sense of chaos at times while enforcing the structure of the whole and really burrowing in and uncovering the uncomfortable rawness of the emotions suffused in this amazing work. Shouts of “Bravo!” greeted the conclusion and deservedly so.
One of the lessons from this concert is that it doesn’t always take a world premiere to create a sense of an event. Rediscovering a lost or forgotten yet deserving work from the past, especially one with a fascinating back story like this one, can serve the purpose just as well.
Because of Muti’s stature and the concert’s tie-in with the 75th anniversary of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, Italy’s ambassador to the United States was in attendance Thursday evening and a letter from the country’s president was reprinted in the program. Both helped give the event a well-deserved feeling of importance.
In 2015, Muti and the Chicago Symphony presented their first performances together of Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626, and they returned to it Thursday evening with one returning soloist, tenor Saimir Pirgu and three newcomers to the CSO – soprano Benedetta Torre, contralto Sara Mingardo and bass Mika Kares.
The choral work was famously left incomplete at the time of Mozart’s death on Dec. 5, 1791, and at the behest of his wife, Constanze, it was finished by one of the composer’s students, Franz Xaver Sussmayr.
Though this protege was no Mozart, and there has been much speculation about what might have been, the work has gone on to become one of the composer’s most prized creations. This sublime version sensitively overseen by Muti went far in explaining why.
The soloists were all up to the task, especially Torre who had some especially transporting moments, but the bulk of the praise goes to the symphony’s always-dependable chorus. More than 90 voices strong here, the ensemble delivered a fervent, in-the-moment performance with all its usual technical aplomb.
But as wonderful as the Requiem was, on this night it was Schuman’s doleful Symphony No. 9 that lingered in the memory.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.