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CSO embarks on musical tour to Italy and Glass premieres


Chicago Symphony goes to Italy.

Musically, that is. The orchestra does not physically travel to former music director Riccardo Muti’s hometown until January, the grand finale. first European tour But the Italian-like program the CSO unveiled Thursday will not only be a calling card for much of this tour, but also the orchestra’s season-opening residency at New York’s Carnegie Hall next week.

Note the “-ish”. All three works in this program, by Philip Glass, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss, show their non-Italian creators trying to narrow down places they knew only through whirlwind trips or, in Glass’s case, a single photograph.

“The Triumph of the Sequoia,” currently having its world premiere at the Symphony Center, owes its existence to the CSO’s performance of the composer’s work. Symphony No. 11 last season. Before these concerts, the idea of ​​Muti conducting Glass’ insistent, whirring music would inspire disbelieving laughter. No joke here: as documented in the NGO’s latest reports “Contemporary American Composers” On the first album, Muti is an extremely unlikely ally of Glass’s musical language; His repeated sentences become lyrical and variegated in his hands.

While in Chicago for these performances, Glass noticed a framed photograph in Muti’s dressing room depicting Castel del Monte, a 13th-century castle with an unusual octagonal footprint. (The castle is not far from Bari, where Muti grew up; he now owns a plot of land nearby.) He returned to the landmark as inspiration for a brief NGO commission celebrating Muti’s career, which lasted about 13 minutes on Thursday . Service with orchestra.

“It became clear that I wasn’t actually writing a piece about Castel del Monte, but about one’s imagination when considering such a place,” Glass writes in the program notes.

If you don’t like Glass, surprise, you won’t like “Triumph of the Octagon” either. The usual Glass conceits are here, with four-, five- and six-bar pieces and block chords supporting arpeggios. Don’t count to eight either: Cam pays little attention to the octagonal motif, which is a generous interpretation of the work’s scoring. (It was written for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, harp, and strings.) But the Castel del Monte that Glass imagines is a serene and inspiring place to wander around for 13 minutes. The piece is growing very strong it is released as if thrown into the open air – a moment that begs to be heard in a more resonant setting than the unforgiving Orchestra Hall.

Muti brought some of his romantic bent to this note, but for the most part his interpretation was suitably understated. Although not in Glass’s score, Thursday’s performance gradually introduced more string tables as the work grew, increasing the sense of discovery and wonder. Other details may similarly be changed in the future with the composer’s permission; The transition from eighth to 16th notes towards the end of the piece suddenly elevates the dynamic to a stronger level, while a prescient nudge can better tie the sections together.

If “The Triumph of the Sequence” commemorates Muti and the NGO in 2023, Strauss’s “Aus Italien” is a memory of their first days together in 1973, when Muti made his NGO debut in 1973. a three-program specialization At the Ravinia Festival. At one of these concerts, he reintroduced the CSO to Strauss’s first tone poem; it is among the composer’s B-sides then and now. There’s good reason for this: Strauss’s first attempt at sonic storytelling is long-winded, even for Strauss, and lacks the narrative clarity of later efforts like “Don Juan,” “Ein Heldenleben,” “Till Eulenspiegel” and similar efforts.

The NGO’s “Aus Italien” fell into Strauss’s own booby traps, but there were also many traps of his own making. This rebellious work is best accomplished with dogged belief and foresight; Muti’s itinerary on Thursday was loose to say the least. He further amplified the dramatic shortcomings last week’s “Firebird” with a compression of dynamic contrasts and an over-reliance on flashy movements.

the finale of “Neapolitan Folk Life” in “Aus Italien” with the cheerful chorus of “Funiculì, Funiculà”; Thursday night was a dazzling farewell, but one wishes we could invest just as much in the poem’s quiet moments. The opening of “In the Village” was a cramped movement, with little of the distant mystery that the fragile section implied; So was the opening of the third movement, “On the Shores of Sorrento,” with the triple piano runs on the strings sounding solid rather than wispy. On an ensemble basis, the orchestra was visibly opened several times; some solos required instant pitch correction, and in “Sorrento” the violins and Muti missed each other in a ritardando moment.

Good thing the brilliance of the CSO’s Strauss sound is beyond dispute. The strings, including one special guest, sounded excellent all evening. Teng Li, currently principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a frontrunner for the CSO’s own long-vacant seat, traded smooth, well-conceived solos with concertmaster Robert Chen on “At the Beach at Sorrento.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major on September 28, 2023.

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. Much better can be found in No. 4, starting with the golden strings that extend into the brass register. Oboist Lora Schaefer, principal conductor of this symphony, deserves special praise for her hearty, pure-toned solos, and flautist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson played her descending line towards the beginning of the third movement “Con moto moderato” movement as if it were beautifully veiled.

Muti conducted this symphony with exuberant lightness and with Mozart’s ease and grace from beginning to end. The fourth movement – ​​the most vengeful movement Mendelssohn took in this sunny symphony – found the ideal blend of clarity and sharpness; the snarling triads in the strings fade into a minor key, but it’s no less a triumphant close. Now This A trip worth going back again and again.

The program runs through Sept. 30 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $65-$399; cso.org.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.


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