Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie

The Maestro Takes Us on an Italian Journey with Philip Glass

By: - Oct 06, 2023

Riccardo Muti’s long and winding road in this country has led him from Philadelphia to Chicago. He is always rooted in Carnegie Hall whose acoustics benefit the micro-miniaturizing attention to a music’s score. Even Philip Glass, whose repeated phrases sometimes merge one to the other, seemed as clear as the strings that dominate in Glass’s composition dedicated to the Maestro.

Glass composed The Triumph of the Octagon after sitting in Muti’s office in Chicago and looking together with him at a photograph of the Castel del Monte, a celebrated 13th century structure with octagonal walls. Muti had first seen the castle as a boy in Italy. Glass had suggested writing an Adagio for Muti, but the two musicians landed instead on the castle. The work accretes like a building rising. Listening you can almost feel the walls and turrets formed one stone at a time. The work also bridges the warmth between the two men, which you could feel, even at their distance in Carnegie –Glass in a box at the back of the hall, and Muti mounted on the podium.

The evening was an Italian journey. Muti will return to his home country to devote himself to the young people’s orchestra he founded. 

The Chicago Symphony next performed Felix Mendelssohn's celebration of Italy, his Symphony No. 4 in A major. If you want to know how music gets embedded in a five-year-old’s mind and heart, I immediately recognize the work as the theme of WQXR’s Breakfast Symphony. Every morning,  sipping my father’s freshly squeezed orange juice and eating oatmeal, we stood for the Star Spangled Banner when WQXR started its day at 7. Mendelssohn followed before I walked to the bus stop to be carted off to kindergarten. Difficult but pleasurable classical music was always part of our lives. Recently we have learned that sitting on the floor and getting up extends life. As long as my father was alive, we would lie on the floor listening to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. They were ingrained.  

Carnegie Hall was packed for Muti and Chicago. Once I’ve gotten my young college students through the door, they come to appreciate the classical form, which is threatened with performance extinction in this country. New York in general is not a good place to try to stem the tide. Lincoln Center has failed in this job. Yet Carnegie is a shining light.

Richard Strauss, at the suggestion of Johannes Brahms, traveled to Italy when he was 21 and fell for its charms. His first tone poem, Aus Italien, concluded the program. It is more symphony than one poem, which is perhaps why it does not succeed as well as his later works in this genre. The  Funiculi, funicula song references are fun. Strauss thought Funiculi was an Italian folk tune.  Funiculi’s composer sued and Strauss lost. Yet again Muti drew forth every phrase’s relationship to another. (Funiculi is now out of copyright protection). As Strauss does, Muti both soothes and crackles.

The evening concluded with a Verdi encore, signature Muti.  Signature Italian music for an Italian journey at Carnegie Hall.  Let's hope for Muti this continues to be a round-trip!