During his leadership of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, aspects of Riccardo Muti’s Italian heritage have often interacted with the orchestra’s American essence. His recent performances of the American composer William Schuman’s Ninth Symphony offer the latest example, one that proved uncommonly disturbing and poignant. The symphony, subtitled “Le fosse Ardeatine” (“The Ardeatine Caves”), memorializes an act of Nazi terror committed in March 1944, when 335 Italian civilians were rounded up and summarily shot outside Rome. The atrocity, in which victims were lined up in rows of five and shot in the back of their heads, was carried out in retaliation for a bombing by the Italian Resistance that killed thirty-two members of the SS Police Regiment Bozen in Rome. The ratio was set at ten Italians for each Nazi killed (although in fact an additional fifteen Italians were killed).

The Ardeatine tragedy is not widely remembered outside Italy, so Muti’s interest was aroused when he learned of a symphony inspired by the event, by an American composer.

The Ardeatine tragedy is not widely remembered outside Italy, so Muti’s interest was understandably aroused when he learned of a symphony—one that likewise is little known— inspired by the event, by an American composer. Schuman (1910–92), like other esteemed twentieth-century American composers such as Samuel Barber (born in the same year) who wrote in a modernistic idiom without abandoning tonality, is now infrequently encountered in the concert hall. But Schuman’s New England Triptych still turns up, and his ten symphonies, performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, are available in a box set from Naxos Records.

The orchestra’s program, which I heard on February 23, was doubly stimulating in acquainting its audience with both a horrific event and a related musical work. The printed program contained moving letters from Sergio Mattarella, the president of the Italian Republic, and Armando Varricchio, the Italian ambassador to the United States, thanking Muti and the orchestra for commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Ardeatine massacre. A special exhibition in Symphony Center, presented by the orchestra in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Chicago and the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, described the tragic events, which occurred over a forty-eight-hour period.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in William Schuman’s Ninth Symphony. Photo: Todd Rosenberg. 

The sense of occasion was strong, yet the symphony emerged as an engrossing and affecting work in its own right. Inspired by the composer’s visit to the Ardeatine caves during a trip to Rome in 1967, the symphony is structured in three movements, designated Anteludium, Offertorium, and Postludium. It is unusual for Schuman because it has a program, or extra-musical content, but the program creates a mood rather than attempting to embody or depict specific events. It begins with a slow-moving, reflective, and vaguely mournful theme played by muted violins, which are successively joined by the other string instruments to weave a contrapuntal web; Muti and the orchestra ensured that it was mesmerizing and almost ghostly.

The vivid, highly concentrated performance achieved by Muti and the orchestra left little, if any, doubt that Schuman’s symphony is an exceptionally strong work.

With the entrance of other instruments, the tone becomes more ominous until a fusillade from the timpani heralds an eruption of violence. The second movement is quicker, with considerable motivic variety and rapid shifts in mood. The opening melody returns in the third movement, now supported solemnly by a quartet of trombones and tuba in lieu of contrapuntal elaboration. Its elegiac mood was interrupted several times by brutal, militaristic interjections from the snare drum and other percussive instruments, which pointed the way to a final eruption at the end. The vivid, highly concentrated performance achieved by Muti and the orchestra left little, if any, doubt that Schuman’s symphony is an exceptionally strong work.

The concert continued with a magisterial reading of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K.626, in which Muti deliberately played down the work’s opportunities for musical and dramatic excitement in favor of sustaining the theme of remembrance established by Schuman. Not that there was anything tepid about the singing of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, but it was the lovely pianissimos they achieved in phrases such “Voca me cum benedictus” in the “Confutatis” movement that were especially telling. Among the four soloists, the young soprano Benedetta Torre began uncertainly but offered some lovely, pure-voiced singing later, and the other soloists—Sara Mingardo, Saimir Pirgu and Mika Kares—gave solid performances.

Muti’s programming of the Schuman symphony constitutes an example of his long-standing concern for the societal implications of his music. Through the Ravenna Festival’s annual Road of Friendship project, he has promoted cultural ties among nations for more than twenty years by taking orchestras to countries that have experienced various forms of hardship. He opened the current season in Chicago with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”) commemorating another Nazi atrocity, the slaughter of Ukrainian Jews in September 1941.

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