Muti and Chicago Symphony vanquish the rain gods with a stirring “Carmina Burana”
Ravinia’s late executive director Edward Gordon used to call them “the weather gods.” And they were not kind Friday evening to Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for their free Concert for Chicago in Millennium Park.
This was no sudden cloudburst or the kind of abrupt squall that sent throngs running for cover and that ultimately shut down the summer’s Lollapalooza Festival for a day. Nor was this a misty drizzle.
This was the kind of steady, soaking rain throughout so much of the day leading up to the concert that most planning to come likely rethought the decision. That 7,000 people ignored common sense and came to the park regardless, well-armed with ponchos, raincoats and umbrellas, and sat quietly together soaking in both the music and the elements, says a lot about the voracious cultural appetites of Chicagoans.
What is even more remarkable is the level of performance that Muti and the assembled forces provided for that devoted crowd during the steady downpour, a complete performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
The piece is a longtime favorite of Muti’s, who recorded it when he was music director of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and also conducted a 1980 landmark performance with the Berlin Philharmonic that the composer himself attended and was so moved by that he called it “a second premiere.” Muti was extremely proud of the fact that Orff went back and made some tempo and dynamic changes to the score based on particulars of that performance.
Walking out to a rockstar reception and waving and smiling to the assemblage, Muti faced the crowd while gesturing to them during the National Anthem. Waiting for a canvas of silence, Muti gestured for it, and while the crowd bustle was still dying down, Muti unexpectedly dive-bombed right into the famous and familiar “O Fortuna” opening.
The choral sections and the orchestral accompaniment were even more organic than the Symphony Center performances last January, Muti’s concept having taken deeper hold. The tempo of the opening was slowed down a tad, presumably for clarity across such a vast space. There was also much greater variety of sound and approach, and superb diction, with some of the best CSO Chorus singing since Muti’s concert performances of Verdi’s Otello a season and a half ago. Even the Chicago Children’s Choir was tighter and more elegant than last winter’s performances.
A new and vastly superior triptych of vocal soloists also ensured that each individual section of the piece was performed with the same gusto as the choral sections, which had not been the case last season.
This meant that Norwegian baritone Auden Iverson’s contributions were not only luxuriously sung, but his various songs took on characterizations of their own: his “Estauns interius” had a touch of cynicism, his “Ego sum abbas” an irreverent decadence and his “Dies, nox et Omnia” delightfully emphasized discomfort when it was textually and range appropriate without coming across as strain.
Instead of the straining sound of a tenor uncomfortably forced to sing falsetto as a cooking goose reflecting on its fate in “Olim lacus colueram,” Muti prefers a countertenor at home with that range. Italian countertenor Antonio Giovannini sounded at ease vocally but at least offered lots of expansive vibrato and dynamics as an expression of his fate.
It was Italian soprano Rosa Feola who offered the most luminous solo singing of the evening, displaying a fluttering sound to introspectively reflect on a young girl’s love in “Amore volat undique.” She brought a poignancy to “In trutina,” melancholy to “Stetit puella” and exquisitely focused high notes of tranquil and life-affirming acceptance of love in the climactic “Dulcissime.” That moment was crowned by a choral “Ave formosissima” that built in joyous tension and momentum into a thrilling transition back to a more world-worn rendition of “O Fortuna.”