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Milan's La Scala is one of the world's most beautiful halls. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

As Riccardo Muti took the stage of Teatro alla Scala, for the first of two concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a cry rang out: “Bentornato!”

In the most appropriate of greetings, an audience member had shouted “welcome back.” After all, both Muti and the CSO were returning to the historic venue, the temple of Italian opera, after long absences; Muti was its music director from 1986 to 2005, and the CSO last performed there in 1981.

Taking the impromptu greeting as a cue, Muti turned to address the audience in Italian. “I normally don’t like to start a concert by speaking, but it would have been absurd to start our performance without acknowledging the tragedy that took place [this week], and the suffering of so many people,” said Muti, referring to the earthquakes and avalanche in Italy’s Abruzzo region on Jan. 18. “Tragic things happen in our world today, but we must remember that music has the power to heal.

“My musicians and I would like to offer this performance of Contemplazione by Alfredo Catalani in tribute to the victims.” He noted that Catalani, a composer who was linked closely to La Scala and was beloved by Toscanini, received the world premiere of his opera La Wally on this exact day, Jan. 20, 125 years ago at La Scala. “So I ask you now to join me and please stand for a moment of silence.”

After the concert, following a prolonged ovation, an audience member shouted a request: “Discorso!” (“Speech!”)

In a playful mood, Muti said, again in Italian, “Someone here is asking me to speak about music. When I first conducted in this house of Verdi, I conducted Nabucco,” he added, referring to the composer’s earliest success, which had its debut in 1842 at La Scala. “So now …” and then he turned around to lead the CSO in an encore of the opera’s popular overture, which references the chorus “Va, pensiero,” Verdi’s beloved anthem.

It was a day of milestones. Earlier at a rehearsal, Philip Reeker, U.S. consul general in Milan, bestowed the Consul General’s Award for Cultural Diplomacy upon the CSO. Meanwhile, the orchestra closes out its Milan engagement with a program of works by Hindemith, Elgar and Mussorgsky on Jan. 21.

For more details, go to the European Tour 2017 page on cso.org and be sure to check for updates here on Sounds & Stories, the CSO’s Facebook page and other social media outlets, including Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks to reports from audience members Roderick Branch and Carlos Sousa de Jesus Jr.