Capping Directorship, Muti Scales Heights Of Beethoven’s Epic Mass


Guest chorus director Donald Palumbo shares a celebratory moment with Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti after the June 23 performance of Beethoven’s ‘Missa solemnis’ at Orchestra Hall. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

CHICAGO — Like many staggering masterpieces, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis comes complete with performance challenges and audience expectations. Riccardo Muti dealt handily with the former and quite possibly exceeded the latter in the first of three weekend concerts (June 23-25) marking his indoor farewell as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after 13 seasons.

The score, potentially dense, was a marvel of clarity. The 100-plus singers of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (as prepared by a visitor from the Metropolitan Opera, Donald Palumbo) leapt and bounded prodigiously through the fugues but also made the doctrinal certainties of the Credo seem like conclusions arrived at through active dialogue. The hush of “et sepultus est” followed by the shout of “Et resurrexit — this never fails. There were other moments of drama on a subtler scale. 

‘Missa solemnis’ soloists take bows: bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, tenor Giovanni Sala, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, and soprano Erin Morley,

Soloists, positioned in front of the choir, varied in character. Soprano Erin Morley was light on top, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen dark on the bottom. Mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova was big and Slavic, tenor Giovanni Sala lyrical and Italian. They came together nicely — indeed operatically — in the “Amen” sequences of the Gloria and the Credo.

Then there was the splendid CSO. The Missa solemnis is not often thought of as a showcase for orchestral color. It seemed so on this occasion, especially in the sombre “Praeludium” in the Sanctus that represents, if not exactly doubt, then Beethoven’s darker reflections on life and mortality. Orchestra Hall’s Casavant organ helped to make this interlude without violins seem truly solemnis.

Elsewhere the rising flute successfully impersonated the Holy Spirit. Trombones made focused sounds. The Benedictus is notable for its extended cantilena for solo violin, which concertmaster Robert Chen played with a honeyed tone. Presumably Muti’s failure to offer him a bow at the end of the concert was an innocent oversight. 

Concertmaster Robert Chen played the extended cantilena in the ‘Benedictus’ with a honeyed tone.

Another remarkable instrumental touch is in the Agnus Dei, where trumpets and drums enter as if to rescue the work from an inappropriately simple conclusion. Annotators sometimes describe certain elements in the Missa solemnis as theatrical. This counts as cinematic.

Through all of the above Muti kept his cool, cueing entries and shaping phrases exactly to the extent needed. It was a little surprising to see him lead the “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua outburst of the Sanctus — “Heaven and earth are full of your glory” — with the steady beat of a bandmaster. He was getting what he wanted from his forces. Why fuss? Beethoven supplies the motivation.

It is customary to speak of technical adeptness as something distinct from interpretive insight. This performance put the listener in a McLuhanesque frame of mind. The musical means were the message. By attending scrupulously to particulars, Muti created a comprehensively human vision of the work Beethoven twice called his greatest to date.

It should be noted that the conductor, who turns 82 in July, was taking on the Missa solemnis for only the second time in his career, after a trio of performances in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2021. In an informal talk to members of the Music Critics Association of North America — in town for their annual meeting — Muti recalled his former reservations by quoting the late conductor Carlos Kleiber to the effect that some music is so exalted that it is best left on the page. Muti has shown us how real and vivid the Missa solemnis can be when brought audibly to life.

Riccardo Muti holds the proclamation naming him Music Director Emeritus for Life after conducting Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ June 23 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

There was, on June 23, the sort of ovation one might expect, for Palumbo as well as Muti, who in an onstage ceremony was named Music Director Emeritus for Life starting in September. Never shy with the microphone, the conductor thanked the orchestra and proceeded to entertain the crowd with some standup, including an unnecessary reference to Beethoven’s deafness.

It was, however, a fond farewell, even if au revoir is the more accurate valediction. Muti led the orchestra’s Concert for Chicago on June 27, a program of works by Price and Tchaikovsky, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. He’ll be back at Orchestra Hall in September to conduct Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, and Brahms’ Second Symphony before traveling to New York with the CSO in October to open the Carnegie Hall season. In January, he leads the orchestra on a three-week European tour. Emeritus is a good gig. He deserves it.