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Opening Carnegie Hall season, Muti and CSO match the celebrity sparkle of a packed house

Submitted by on Oct 3, 2012 – 10:48 pm

Report: Chelsea Clinton and Sarah Jessica Parker were among celebs who joined a roaring ovation for conductor  Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

By Lawrence B. Johnson

NEW YORK – The audience was aglitter with celebrities Wednesday night as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s new season with a power-packed performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” under music director Riccardo Muti.

Among celebs spotted in a packed house that heard the first of three Carnegie concerts Muti and the CSO will present this week were soprano Renée Fleming, Chelsea Clinton, television journalist Barbara Walters, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.

They came, they heard and they stayed at the end to join in an ovation that lasted nearly 10 minutes for a performance that captured the full measure of lust, lyricism, exuberance and despair in Orff’s cycle of songs drawn from the poetry of medieval university students.

New Yorkers were simply getting a belated turn on the magic carpet ride CSO audiences experienced last season when Muti and company – including the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Chicago Children’s Choir – presented “Carmina Burana” at Orchestra Hall. They also performed it for 7,000 rain-soaked fans at Millennium Park last week.

All three vocal soloists — soprano Rosa Feola, countertenor Antonio Giovannini and baritone Audun Iversen — brought distinctive character to their highly dramatic parts in what is essentially a theater piece. It wasn’t for nothing that Orff called “Carmina Burana” a scenic cantata. Indeed, its world premiere in 1937 was staged. And not a fiber of the work’s richly woven personality was lost on Muti the opera maestro.

In 25 episodes bookended by its famous invocation of the fickle Goddess of Fortune, the poems of “Carmina Burana” cut a wide swath through life’s vicissitudes, from love and loneliness to death and the ever-mitigating excursions into drunkenness. But what is so deceptive, and often elusive about this seemingly brash and simplistic work is a subtle musical subtext that demands finesse and dares the conductor to risk understatement.

That’s where the Chicagoans’ performance shone at Carnegie even as it did at Orchestra Hall. Just as Muti rocked the house with ripping syncopations that propelled Orff’s dance-based sections, he also indulged the long, elegant lines that provide dramatic relief – and which remind us that we’re not watching a cartoon but rather peering into the fullness of life.

It also must be said that “Carmina Burana” interlaces orchestra and chorus with such precision and brilliance that a really successful performance defies praise for one element over the other. And so it was here, as the CSO provided both the driving rhythms and the radiant, still-voiced accompaniments to push and buoy a assured performances by the big chorus and the children’s choir.

For all the grandeur of those forces, however, the soloists nearly stole the show. Giovannini’s high-pitched impersonation of a roasted duck offered just the right mash-up of pathos and comedy; Iversen’s turn as the inebriated abbot of Cluny was the miserable, heart-felt proclamation of a man weary of dull life. And Feola’s stratospheric top notes of submission – “Sweetest boy, I give my all to you” – made that choice seem wonderfully well considered.

It was, all told, a production that sparkled like the glitterati in attendance and a splendid opener for Carnegie Hall’s season.

Muti and the CSO take the Carnegie stage again Oct. 4 to play works by Franck and Meade Composer-in-residence Mason Bates, then finish their Carnegie series Oct. 5 with music of Dvořák and Respighi. The orchestra then flies to Mexico for concerts Oct. 7 and 8 in Juarez and Mexico City before returning to Chicago and subscription concerts later in October with guest conductor Bernard Haitink.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top:  Chicago Symphony Chorus director Duaine Wolfe listens from the back of Carnegie Hall as music director Riccardo Muti leads a rehearsal for the evening performance of “Carmina Burana.” Descending: Assistant principal cellist Ken Olson practices backstage at Carnegie Hall before rehearsal. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg) The Goddess Fortuna is portrayed on her wheel in the medieval manuscript “Carmina Burana.” CSO music director Riccardo Muti discusses Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and the orchestra’s season-opening concerts at Carnegie Hall with broadcast journalist Charlie Rose on PBS. Below: Carnegie Hall is already bedecked for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert as the musicians assemble for rehearsal. Principal cellist John Sharp prepares to board a bus for O’Hare International Airport en route to New York. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

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