The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is always eager to eager to travel in whatever direction its music director, Riccardo Muti, sees fit, and for the 2014 season, Muti has decided to immerse the orchestra in the music of Franz Schubert, a composer whose prolific and often profound output offers seemingly endless potential for discovery. On Thursday night, the CSO and Muti, with the full Chicago Symphony Chorus in tow, gave their first ever performance of Schubert’s 5th Mass in A-Flat Major, an exploration of a genre in which Schubert excelled but which is seldom explored.
After hearing the CSO’s performance on Thursday night, it is difficult to believe that we will have to wait long to hear it, or perhaps another Schubert Mass, again. Though I wish to avoid hyperbole, particularly in describing a work with which I’m not familiar, the Mass is the work of a superlative composer, which we generally take for granted that Schubert was. It is a lovingly crafted and deeply emotional work that adds both to our knowledge of music and deepens our appreciation of Schubert’s gifts, though certainly no further evidence is needed beyond his better-known pieces.
Under Muti’s direction, the orchestra’s pace was slow but never dull. The maestro was determined to make the performance of the Mass one which highlighted its more emotional aspects. That is not to say that the performance was overly somber; Schubert’s joyfulness as well as his Romantic sincerity shone through in the CSO’s performance, which was beautifully complimented by the singing of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, particularly in the Credo, which was notable for its soaring, exuberant conclusion. Perhaps I am reading too much into the performance, though I find the CSO’s performance quality to be consistently superlative (not an original or radical sentiment,) but I believe that the players were perhaps more focused than usual with their principal conductor on the podium, the precision with which they played even more impressive than usual, though given their usual high quality this is perhaps over-analysis. A final complimentary word for the Schubert Mass must go to the soloists (soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo-soprano Michela Selinger, tenor Antonio Poli, and bass Riccardo Zanellato), who sang beautifully without a weak link in the group.
The program began with an overture by Schubert “In the Italian Style”, so-called, according to the program notes, because of the influence of hearing Rossini’s music on the young Schubert. The beginning of the piece has the definitive hallmarks of Schubert’s orchestral writing, but after the introduction, the playful use of the strings is certainly suggestive of Rossini’s overtures, though Schubert doesn’t quite go as far, in terms of length or the shift of melody and tone as Rossini does.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the program was the CSO’s debut of Ennio Morricone’s piece, Voices From the Silence, prefaced by remarks by Muti to the audience about its themes and Morricone’s motivations in writing the piece. Muti himself conducted the piece’s premiere in Italy at the Ravenna (not to be confused with the CSO’s summer residence, Ravinia) Festival in 2003. The piece was nominally a tribute to the events of 9/11, but the text which accompanies the music is from a poem by a South African poet, Richard Moore Rive, who was murdered for his anti-apartheid stance. The orchestral playing is accompanied both by chorus and spoken narration of Rive’s poem, as well as by African music, which is piped in over loudspeakers. The work’s intention may be intended more (and Muti’s remarks confirm it) at combating racism and intolerance, though this was Morricone’s response to the terrorist attacks on America; because of the South African influence, one could not help but think that the performance was also intended as a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.
The work is one that begins cacophonously, before settling into a quiet, abstract, rhythmic mood with pieces of dissonance. Morricone then leans back on his old standbys, employing one of the more dramatic themes from one of his most famous film scores, from 1986’s The Mission. The piece is sprawling, with no center to easily focus on, both haunting and confusing. Those who are familiar with Morricone’s film scores know that his music does not merely accompany movies, but manages to elevate the experience to an even higher level, not a small accomplishment given the caliber of some of the movies which his music has accompanied. The most surprising event of the evening came when Morricone himself appeared to receive the adulation of the crowd and to congratulate Muti for his conducting; the surprise attendance of Morricone (who was awarded with an honorary Oscar in 2007,) and the meeting of these two great Italian musicians, gave the audience an unexpected, unforgettable thrill.
all photo credits: Todd Rosenberg