Celebrating 60 years of the Chicago Symphony Chorus was no easy task given the unit’s reputation for quality. That anniversary was marked this past weekend with a program highlighted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus putting forth an absolutely sublime Schubert Mass in E-Flat major.
The three-part program began with maestro Riccardo Muti and the CSO performing the overture to Weber’s “Oberon.” Next up was a world premiere of a commission by the CSO viola player Max Raimi based on the poetry of Holocaust survivor Lisel Mueller, titled “Three Lisel Mueller Settings” and featuring celebrated mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong in her CSO debut as a soloist.
The final work was the final mass composed by Franz Schubert written not long before his death. It is noted for how the composer reordered the text in comparison to standard masses and, like all his masses, how he refused to include the line “Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” or “And (I believe) in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Though Schubert does embrace “Credo in unum Deum” or “I believe in one God” and other such paeans to God and Jesus, the overall impact of this mass is less in terms of religion and more in terms of faith and belief.
Accompanying the chorus were soloists DeShong, soprano Amanda Forsythe, tenors Paul Appleby and Nicholas Phan and bass Nahuel Di Pierro. There are no solo arias in the mass for these vocalists, whose presence amplifies the magnificence of the chorus. The combination of these soloists’ registers was put to full effect in the third of the Mass’s six movements, Credo, in one of the more transcendent sections of a work full of such moments.
Duain Wolfe, who is in his 24th season as the director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, is worthy of high praise. Maestro Muti’s orchestra and Wolfe’s charges produced a work that was sincere and affecting with its overarching theme of Schubert’s search for meaning in his final days.
Max Raimi has been with the CSO since 1984 as a viola player. He began composing as a child and has amassed a great deal of credits to his name ranging from a Dr. Seuss setting for a mezzo-soprano and woodwind quintet to arrangements of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
His inspiration for “Three Lisel Mueller Settings” came from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mueller, who was born in Hamburg, Germany and fled to the United States at the age of 15 in 1939. Mueller is a resident of Lake Forest in suburban Chicago and Raimi has compared the impact of her poems to the scathing words of Chicago’s legendary late newspaper columnist, Mike Royko.
Raimi set three poems, “The Story,” “An Unanswered Question” and “Hope,” to music in this 15-minute work. Part of the purpose of this commission was for Raimi to write for his fellow orchestra members; the result employed 12 different percussive effects that were conspicuous throughout with many of the rare variety.
The poems themselves are diverse in topic with “The Story” about a disintegrating marriage, “An Unanswered Question” about an aboriginal woman displayed in a cage in 19th-century London and “Hope” about hope itself, though embodied through some odd yet pointed metaphors.
Raimi featured one orchestra member prominently in each piece with Stephen Williamson at clarinet in “The Story,” Keith Buncke at bassoon on “An Unanswered Question,” and Alex Hanna at double-bass in “Hope.”
The words are set for someone in the lower register and thus paving the way for DeShong, who was fresh off her success as Arsace in “Semiramide” at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a particular noteworthy milestone in the career of someone familiar to Chicago as a former Ryan Opera Center ensemble member who has risen to stardom since.
Interspersed in DeShong’s fluid singing were moments of spoken dialogue that served to accentuate the poetic nature of this work. The heavy use of percussion created a challenging situation for the soloist, who was often in the middle of a verse when a cymbal would sound or a lead pipe would be struck; it may have served the jarring nature of this piece but it did DeShong no favors as a performer.
Her effort on stage was admirable given the conditions of executing her lines amidst these bursts of sound from the orchestra. DeShong may never have envisioned a CSO debut with lyrics such as “If I had been the lone survivor of my Tasmanian tribe” in “An Unanswered Question” and “It sprouts in each occluded eye of the many-eyed potato” in “Hope” but she made it work as a true professional.
Overall, it was the old mixed in with the new for an altogether enthralling evening that showed how Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are unafraid to venture into uncharted waters while also spotlighting greats of the past.