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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Kyle MacMillan - For the Sun-Times

CSO-commissioned work by Philip Glass a triumph for composer, maestro and orchestra

Music Director Emeritus for Life Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 on Thursday night at Symphony Center. (© Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Riccardo Muti revisited old musical friends last week as he opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-24 season by returning to three works, including two giants of the classical repertoire, that he had led previously with the orchestra.

Back in action Thursday evening, the orchestra’s music director emeritus for life took a different but equally rewarding tack, overseeing a group of works by non-Italian composers of different eras who were all inspired by Muti’s magical native country.

With compelling melodies and rich orchestrations, the musical line-up beautifully showcased this ensemble in peak form. 

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor

The evening opened with the world premiere of a 12-minute work by Philip Glass, who, at 86, stands as one of the old masters of the American compositional world. Muti and Glass had never met before the CSO performed the composer’s Symphony No. 11 during a set of concerts in February 2022.

Glass attended one of the performances, and during a conversation with Muti in the maestro’s Orchestra Hall studio, he noticed a photo on the wall of octagon-shaped castle known as Castel del Monte, a 13th-century citadel in the Apulia region of the conductor’s native Italy. (Muti was taken to see the structure when he was 5 and has remained captivated by it ever since.)

Muti and the CSO decided to commission a work from Glass, and Castel del Monte became the inspiration for this new creation, which is dedicated to the maestro and aptly titled “The Triumph of the Octagon.”

“What became clear was that I was not writing a piece about Castel del Monte per se, but rather about one’s imagination when we consider such a place,” Glass wrote in his accompanying notes.  

Although this opener certainly has elements of Glass’ well-known minimalist iteration, it has little of the relentless, sometimes hypnotic drive associated with it. Instead, this music is calmer, more reflective, even wistful, with a simple, affecting melody, something not typically associated with the composer’s earlier works.

Even though this new piece was only Muti’s second time ever conducting the composer’s music, he seemed at home in it, shaping a suitably subtle interpretation that assured a basic and necessary forward momentum without crowding or over-stepping.     

Glass was not present Thursday evening, but he is expected to be in attendance for the New York premiere, when Muti and the CSO repeat this program Oct. 5 at Carnegie Hall as part of a two-night appearance at the venerable venue.

Capping the first half was an airy, vivacious and completely winning performance that captured the joyous, uplifting spirit of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian,” a work inspired by the German composer’s trip to Italy in 1830. There were highlights aplenty, including a delightfully spirited take on the final movement, Salterello: Presto, a non-stop romp.     

Like Mendelssohn before him, Richard Strauss traveled to Italy in 1886 and immediately fell under the country’s spell, beginning to sketch what would become his first significant work, a tone poem titled “Aus Italien,” Op. 16.

Muti is clearly a big fan of this strangely under-appreciated work, leading it during his first performance with the orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in 1973 and returning to it in 2011. The maestro was totally in his element here, as he and the orchestra conveyed the full scope of this sweeping work and mined all of its lovely musical riches along the way.   


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