Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought a concert inspired by the city of Rome to Carnegie Hall on Friday night. “Why Rome?” seemed an obvious question, but answers were elusive. Programmatic coherence is not a requirement for symphonic art; but it might have helped with the hit-and-miss nature of this performance, which ranged from dull to shatteringly sublime.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The concert opened with Bizet’s Roma, a lesser known 30-minute piece that is variously described as a symphony or an orchestral suite. Originally intending it to be a musical description of his Italian vacation, Bizet worked on it for eleven years, never completely satisfied with it. The piece is largely banal and deserves its obscurity.

There were both lovely moments and infelicitous choices in Muti’s rendition. The hymn-like horn quartet that opens the piece was gorgeous, and Muti pulled what drama he could from the rest of the first movement. But in the second movement Scherzo, he emphasized lilt rather than drive, to yawning effect. His normally acute way with orchestral balance, on delightful display here in the passages for harp and woodwinds in the opening of the third movement, allowed the (admittedly gratuitous) violin solo later in the movement to be nearly buried. And when he finally allowed the brass and timpani off their short leashes at the end of the fourth movement, to stirring effect, it became clear how lukewarm most of the interior climaxes had been.

Joyce DiDonato and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Muti and Joyce DiDonato’s rendition of Berlioz’ La Mort de Cléopâtre, however, was nothing short of extraordinary. DiDonato chose to sing this concert piece as though it were an operatic role, and her magnificent, embodied portrayal of a queen facing death began from the orchestra’s first notes. Her English horn of a mezzo evoked textures from rose petals to titanium. Muti, meanwhile, emphasized the radical innovation in the score, recreating the shock it must have been to the Prix de Rome judges despite all the intervening time since its composition. Throughout, the startling clarity of every musical gesture, the relationship between voice and orchestra, continually served a dramatic purpose, to indelible effect. The central Méditation, an eerie funeral march, was hair-raising; and the closing death scene itself (after a wonderfully programmatic musical depiction of the infamous asp bite) used Berlioz’ ostinato and swooping dissonant chords in a practically cinematic way to evoke a racing heart and and altered states of consciousness. I will remember this performance for the rest of my life.

After a core-deep, earthshaking experience like that, Respighi’s giant evergreen crowd-pleaser Pines of Rome was, despite best efforts, simply an anticlimax. Muti used the large orchestra to excellent coloristic effect (Respighi’s influence on John Williams was an irresistible thought, especially in the first movement). The soloists (offstage trumpet, piano, clarinet, English horn) were uniformly excellent, supple, warm and human, as was (again) the horn section. The “buccine” called for in the last movement, antique brass instruments which the composer expected to be played on flugelhorns and saxhorns, were here modern trumpets and trombones arrayed in the boxes; I missed the slightly otherworldly effect given by less familiar instruments. The recording of the nightingale in the third movement (the first use of recorded sound in the orchestral literature) was played back at a very loud volume; this was not a distant nightingale, but one outside your window that won’t let you sleep.