at Orchestra Hall, September 18; repeating September 23 and 25

It was perhaps inevitable that Daniel Barenboim would come under the gun. Succeeding a popular longtime artistic director is a dubious proposition in the annals of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After Frederick Stock’s death in 1942 a parade of maestros tried out–the last of whom, Rafael Kubelik, was practically hounded out of town by the Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy. Jean Martinon, taking over from Fritz Reiner, quit after six rancorous seasons. Now disenchantment with Barenboim has set in, only two short years after the departure of Georg Solti, the most-touted and second-longest-reigning conductor in CSO history.

The backlash reached a peak of sorts a couple of Sundays ago, when the Tribune’s John von Rhein weighed in with a harsh commentary quoting negative remarks about Barenboim’s interpretive acumen from anonymous CSO members. The impression created was of a celebrity conductor overextended by a jet-setting schedule and cavalier about his commitment to the Chicago music scene. Neither charge was new–the Sun-Times’s Robert Marsh had questioned Barenboim’s musicianship even before he was picked–but when repeated in the most influential daily in town no one can blame CSO bigwigs for taking out their worry beads.

The timing of this latest bad press couldn’t have been worse. Ambitious plans to expand the subscriber base as well as the building could be put on hold if corporate donors and the public no longer perceive the CSO as a civic success story. Certainly the peripatetic Barenboim, who was born in Argentina and reared in Israel, hasn’t helped his own cause. Even if his musical merits are debatable, Solti 25 years ago at least took the then-provincial orchestra on a long-awaited tour of Europe and brought it a coveted recording contract. The biggest and most frequent complaint against him throughout his reign was that he regarded Chicago as a remote outpost, his American pied-a-terre.

Barenboim has much less to offer, though he does have an international reputation and a coterie of superstar collaborators. But he did make promises: unlike his predecessor he would spend more time here and schedule more new music. On both counts he has so far come up short. The frequency of his appearances on the Orchestra Hall podium is about the same as Solti’s, and he’s taken on additional duties in Europe, which has remained his main stomping ground. His desire for a cross-Loop alliance with Lyric Opera was unceremoniously dampened by Lyric’s cancellation of his rumored-to-be-expensive production of Wozzeck. Even his most publicized engagement to date–the semistaged Mozart-Da Ponte operas–was controversial: it put the Orchestral Association into the red for the first time in years.

Despite his professed fondness for 20th-century works, Barenboim hasn’t quite been able to persuade the CSO subscribers to share his enthusiasm. Ironically, it’s Pierre Boulez, the Parisian avant-gardist he invited to strengthen the CSO’s modern wing, who has wowed audiences and enticed younger concertgoers into Orchestra Hall. To be sure, Barenboim has scheduled a number of premieres in the last two seasons, some overdue for the CSO. Unfortunately, illness forced him to postpone a few and to bow out of doing Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique, arguably the most important local premiere of the last two seasons. Barenboim’s belief in educational outreach is of course laudable. And he’s made the progress of the apprentice Civic Orchestra a top priority. But nurturing the Civic (and for that matter the CSO) takes a great deal of time–may even require full-time residence in the city. Despite sincere-sounding rhetoric, Barenboim so far seems unwilling to make that commitment.

Barenboim might be able to get away with all this if he were a great conductor in the full bloom of his artistry. He is not. At 50, he’s still the wildly uneven conductor he was two decades ago with the Orchestre de Paris. The caliber of the orchestras he presides over now is definitely superior, and their world-class sound often compensates for his interpretive wanderings. The truth is, when he’s on the mark he can be very good indeed, but when he’s not fully engaged he can be awful. Two seasons at the helm of the CSO have exposed the warts. And the letdown heightens the sense of promise unfulfilled.

It was amidst these ominous critical rumblings that Barenboim and the CSO began the season last weekend. The program held one work: Verdi’s Requiem. Verdi intended his mass, his only significant work outside the operatic realm, as a memorial to writer and fellow patriot Alessandro Manzoni (and indirectly to his other personal hero, Rossini). And it’s a requiem like no other, except maybe Berlioz’s youthful and equally florid High Mass for the Dead. Composed in 1873, about the same time as Aida and at the end of a long creative period, this grand-scale work forsakes conventional, somber liturgical necessities in favor of an unabashedly compassionate and worldly view of the human condition. Using the traditional Latin settings as pretext, Verdi fashioned an emotional roller coaster that takes the listener from piety to pity, from joy to sorrow, from anger to serenity. Overwhelmingly theatrical, the music is profoundly religious in its own way, proclaiming faith much more vividly than most masses.

Operatic flourishes abound, and to Barenboim’s credit, he let the tragic and wise drama unfold in the heart-tugging, endearingly vulgar Italian manner (as opposed to the more cerebral approach one might take with Brahms’s A German Requiem). In the opening Kyrie, which contains echoes of Nabucco, the Chicago Symphony Chorus cried and whispered like devout pilgrims. Later, in the idiosyncratically swift Sanctus, the choristers sounded like they’d just stepped out of a sprightly operetta. In the sprawling and spectacular Dies Irae–the longest by far of the mass’s seven sections–the quartet of soloists take turns lamenting and beseeching in a parade of arias. Here the soloists assembled by Barenboim were quite impressive. Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto conveyed awe in “Mors stupebit,” and tenor Vicente Ombuena, though less subtle and ardent, was a fairly convincing penitent in “Ingemisco.”

It was the ladies, however, who commanded attention. Alessandra Marc and Waltraud Meier eloquently partnered each other in the prayer “Recordare,” a soprano-mezzo duet modeled after the famous exchange between Aida and her adversary Amneris. And they were almost mesmerizing singing a cappella in the opening measures of the Agnus Dei. About the only pallid vocal stretch in the Saturday performance was the Lux Aeterna; the trio–Meier, Ombuena, and Furlanetto–couldn’t quite whip up a sense of urgency. But what followed–the pleading Libera Me–was striking, its forlorn, beatific beauty enhanced by Marc’s pure, dulcet voice. The orchestral accompaniment was for the most part what one expects from the CSO: energetic, mellifluous, and extroverted. (Barenboim, in a judicious move, chose not to add more forces to the ensemble.) Only a handful of orchestras can rival the Chicagoans in playing the thunderous opening of the Dies Irae with ferocity and accuracy. (Percussionists Gordon Peters and Albert Payson, please take a deep bow.) And the brass and winds roisterously conveyed the oompah essence of the Verdian beat.

I’d have preferred a more delirious and impassioned performance, but this one (which was recorded and might end up being the one used by Erato when its Barenboim-CSO version is released) ranks among the most memorable I’ve heard. It boasted strong singing from an impeccable chorus (prepared, once again, by Margaret Hillis) and a quartet of soloists well schooled in the Italian tradition. The orchestra sounded glossy and vigorous. And the conducting was secure in evoking the work’s theatricality. But it will take more such compelling, committed performances for Barenboim to effect a rapprochement with critics and other detractors–should he ever want to.

The Saturday concert opened with the air from Bach’s Suite no. 3. The rendition was warm and heartfelt–an apt eulogy to cellist Leonore Glazer, who died on July 27.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Steere.