Italy’s Dreams and Picture Postcards
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/05/2023 - & September 28, 29, 30, 2023 (Chicago), January 13 (Paris), 14 (Essen), 15 (Luxembourg), 19 (Frankfurt), 20 (Köln), 26 (Torino), 2024
Philip Glass: The Triumph of the Octagon
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 “Italian”, Op.90
Richard Strauss: Aus Italien, Op.16
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Conductor)
“Is there not something more glorious about making music than making war?”
From Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd
“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.”
Philip Glass in his program notes for The Triumph of the Octagon
The question last night at Carnegie Hall? Who was the most Italian of them all? Munich’s Strauss? Leipzig’s Mendelssohn? Baltimore’s Glass? Chicago’s Symphony Orchestra? Which foreigner was the most Italian of them all?
The answer is simple. They all made a stab at the Italian ethos. But none would have come close without the mastery, the grace, the minute-perfect conducting of Naples‑born Riccardo Muti.
Not that Naples is his home. Now in his ninth decade, Maestro Muti has made his home throughout the great concert halls of Europe. And recently, his Chicago Symphony Orchestra (he led them for 13 years) named him Music Director Emeritus for Life.
If last night was any indication that this is more than an honorary title, one had to see–-and hear–him on the podium. He conducted Strauss’s early self-indulgent Aus Italien as though it was Bruckner. (Albeit with a finale that could have come from Offenbach). The Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony had the speedy briskness of an Italian bike marathon As for Philip Glass’s paean to a 13th Century eight‑sided Apulian tower...
Well, that was personal to the conductor. Actually the original title was Adagio for Muti, dedicated to the man who premiered his 11th Symphony. With a Baroque‑sized orchestra–a pair of flutes, clarinets, oboes, harp and strings–Philip Glass’s The Triumph of the Octagon offered an atmospheric dream of architecture.
It was lovely, picture-perfect, and had few of the Philip Glass trademarks. Not so much a symphonic poem like Aus Italien, it was an undying image, starting and ending without any start or end. The beginning was not meandering, but the shimmering opaque sounds seem to have been there long before starting. As this soft vision continued, the volume glided upwards, then faded away, then glided in volume again.
These were the most delicate colors, and one wanted to return and experience them again. The ending, in fact, was the only startling moment. The rest was so conservative that it could have a chamber-orchestration of a Liszt elegiac piano piece. Yet with that mid‑air ending, Glass changed the picture to a 2023 vision. Its 13 minutes became a soft almost blurred memory of a misty Medieval fortress, a recollection of dreams past.
Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony was anything but a dream of memory. This was chunk full of horn-calls, careful string scurrying, a Pilgrim’s March (the devotees were skipping part of the time) and a final saltarello which should have run wild. It didn’t. Conductor Muti was more interested in the clarity of his great orchestra than in setting records. And here his success showed that experience, sagacity and the utmost control overcame what would be a natural crowd‑pleaser.
Finally we came to Strauss’s earliest symphonic poem, From Italy. The reason why Aus Italien is so rarely played is because it is less Strauss’s love for Italy as love for himself. His own genius. The four movements wander or stroll with their own longueurs, their own Wagnerian measures of brassy tunes, their endless diversions.
Oh, it could have been a travelogue of sunlight and old castles (like Glass’s edifice), of birdcalls and walks through Sorrento. But not even the great Riccardo Muti could hold it together. Though the finale–where Strauss was sued for using a popular song–ran away with joy.
The encore was authentically Italian, but Verdi’s Joan of Arc Overture was a rare treat, an unexpected orchestral showpiece played by an orchestra of consummate skill, art and color.
CODA: The intermission brought forth a heretical image. Suppose that the Castel del Monte had been built with five sides rather than eight. In that case, a program could start with Haydn’s “Military” Symphony–and end with The Triumph of the Pentagon
Methinks it would not suit with the composer’s approval.