Muti Mulls Verdi As Chicago Cues Requiem Simulcast

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UPDATE: Click to view on demand the global Oct. 10 simulcast of Verdi’s Requiem with Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus featured guest soprano Tatiana Serjan, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, tenor Mario Zeffiri and bass Ildar Abdrazakov.

By Nancy Malitz

Have your finest audio headphones ready for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s world-wide simulcast tonight of Verdi’s Requiem, music director Riccardo Muti’s composition of choice to honor the great composer’s bicentennial, which is being celebrated globally today — the very date of Verdi’s birth near Busseto, Italy, in 1813.

The composition begins at the threshold of audibility, with muted cellos uttering a singularly beautiful line, graceful, almost weightless, a pianissimo in unison to announce the contemplation of transcendence in the face of death. And, although it does not seem possible, more strings and, subsequently, voices join the audible throng, softer still.

Miss that sound, and you miss the quintessence of Verdi alla Muti, which makes of your ear a seeker. At the dress rehearsal Wednesday for today’s big event, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and a quartet of soloists joined a nine-camera crew, assorted technicians, and an overflow of people who had been turned away for tickets to tonight’s long-sold-out event at Orchestra Hall. When the music started, there was that sense of a collective distillation of effort to hear more deeply. It’s a familiar sensation with Muti, never more intense than when he plies the music of his favorite subject.

“The fact that this Requiem is performed on the day of the birth of Verdi is not a contradiction, because this day is a celebration of the composer,” said Muti in his dressing room several days prior, at a time when he was also preparing Verdi’s opera Macbeth in the Chicago Symphony’s month-long Verdi celebration. “The day of the birth and the day of the death is the same thing. The Requiem is one of the greatest works in all of music. That is why we do it.”

As Muti believes that Verdi’s Shakespearean operas guide the listener toward a better understanding of the poet playwright, so does he also find enlightenment in Verdi’s probing of the sacred text:

“Did he believe or not? Certainly Verdi in the Requiem expresses the desire of all of us, of mankind, to one day have eternal peace. What is this peace, we don’t know, we never know. So Verdi gives us music that is very human. There is no academy, nothing pompous. It is a sort of approach of man to God that is the Italian way.

“The Italian speaks directly to God as to another person: ‘You have created me. You must take the responsibility of my life, and of my death. It is not just that I have to worship you. As you have the responsibility of my life, so you have to liberate me, to make me free, requiem, requiem, requiem.’ ”

Yet the soul treads uneasily, a reading that Muti finds in the deep relationship between Verdi’s notes and the words at almost the syllabic level:

“Especially in Italian music, this relationship is very vertical,” Muti says. “That particular word exists in connection with that special sound. It is not like Wagner and other music, where a general atmosphere incorporates the words. In Verdi that word is sustained by that music, and many times the music suggests a hidden meaning.

“The musical phrase with exactly the same words can mean a completely different thing the next time. At the very end of the Requiem, when the soprano sings ‘Libera me Domine,’ it is a question mark. The music is written in such a way as if to ask, ‘Is He going to make free? Is He going to make it easy doing that? Will He do this for me?’ So this is the question, the very human question that belongs to all of us, including the priests. When the priest says, ‘This is My body,’ do you think that every time even the priest may not wonder if it’s true that this is the body of Christ?”

Millions will be able to share this experience simultaneously, an idea of signal importance to Muti, who has taken time during his current Chicago residency to broaden awareness and understanding. He invited members of the Macbeth cast to join him in an informal recital at a detention center for young women; such visits to incarcerated youths have become part of his routine. He conducted and listened to a community orchestra rehearsal for musicians of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. And he has spoken with radio, television, and even strangers on the street of his great enthusiasm for Verdi and their shared Italian culture, a broad subject that extends from the insights of Dante’s Divina Commedia to the simple delight of branzino roasted in a wooden fire.

Tonight’s performance will also be transmitted live to the city’s huge outdoor screen in Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, designed by Frank Gehry with a proscenium of billowing sails that echo the floating vista of Chicago’s nearby Lake Michigan  shore. The camera logistics are partially scripted and then managed on the fly, much as they are for an NFL game or a Metropolitan Opera HD performance, from a command center on location in a nondescript semi-trailer truck adjacent to the back lot, with a raft of cables crossing the grounds and a satellite dish tipped to the sky. For more information about Verdi’s Requiem Mass, the complete text and translation, and access to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s excellent supplemental materials by longtime program annotator Philip Huscher, click here.

Nancy Malitz, publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, was the founding music critic at USA Today and former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has done strategic planning in new media for Gannett and remains an active music and theater critic.

Date posted: October 10, 2013