The CSO returns with exciting, triumphal music

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato joins Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “The Death of Cleopatra” by Berlioz. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

By M.L. RANTALA
Music critic

The seven-week musicians’ strike at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the longest strike in the history of the 128-year-old institution, ended on Apr. 28 and the orchestra performed again on May 2 at Symphony Center with Riccardo Muti, music director of the CSO.

This re-start of the season caused Muti to treat the occasion like a beginning, and so the stage was bedecked with the American flag and the first music to be heard was a rousing rendition of the national anthem.

This was followed by an intriguing and somewhat unusual program, leading off with the rarely played “Roma” by Bizet. Some consider “Roma” a symphony, others a symphonic suite. The composer worked on it for over a decade, revised it several times, and never published a final version during his lifetime.

It’s a spotty work in four movements, and Muti appeared determined to draw out all of the merit in the piece. The hushed horn chorale in the opening was nicely shaped; as more winds joined in, the sound filled out. Simmering, shimmering strings added balance, and Muti found the interesting musical tensions in the music.

The Scherzo, the most widely admired part of “Roma,” was bracing with lively interactions between the voices of the orchestra. Yet there is a certain bombast in the score, and a listlessness in the Andante molto, which even Muti could not turn to gold. It was a splendid performance of an uneven work and the first complete performance of it by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1894, when Theodore Thomas conducted.

After the intermission, the fireworks began. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato served as the soloist for “The Death of Cleopatra” by Berlioz, and the results were spectacular. DiDonato’s dark oak sound was burnished and highly persuasive. She was convincing not only as a woman in anguish but also as one losing the power and riches that have surrounded her life.

The music’s power was unleashed with care, as both DiDonato and Muti scorned easy drama, preferring a subtle and nuanced approach. The mezzo’s thoughtful interpretation was always fully supported by the orchestra, who contributed fluid playing and a safe cushion of sound. By the end, the pain of Cleopatra was palpable and the final lines (in English, “Cleopatra, by her death,/Again becomes worthy of Caesar!”) were not only the sign of her death, but a clear declaration that she was ready for her own demise. It was a powerful performance.

This was followed by the concluding work on the program, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” a work Muti performed in a free concert in Millennium Park in 2010, when he first became CSO music director. It is a symphonic poem in four movements, each looking at pine trees in different parts of Rome at different times of day.

This is music that seems to be in Muti’s blood. His ability to make the music sparkle and sing is entrancing. The opening movement embodied the playfulness of children, with joyful yells and faux battles.

The second movement is a portrait of pine trees overhanging the entrance to catacombs. The hymn-like melody was lovely, and the off-stage musicians added texture to the sacred setting.

The next movement portrays nighttime on Janiculum Hill, replete with recorded nightingale song. It was moody and dark with shards of light offering contrast. The final “Pines of the Appian Way” had grandeur and excitement, again featuring excellent off-stage brass. Military might and a sunny landscape were clearly drawn.

Muti led his forces in a powerful and sweeping performance that thundered through Symphony Center.

This was the first performance of the orchestra since the end of the strike and the audience appeared glad to have the musicians back. Both the orchestra and Muti were greeted with warm and appreciative applause when they first appeared on stage and the Berlioz and Resphigi had many patrons applauding on their feet. But it was easy to spot many empty seats throughout the house. Filling those seats needs to be the next item on the agenda.