“Maestro!” called out an enthusiastic, then-Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti to composer Philip Glass before the two embraced after a performance of the Glass Symphony No. 11 with the CSO in February of last year. It was a surprising summit between two near-contemporary legendary figures in music—Glass eighty-six, Muti eighty-two—whose paths had not crossed during their long careers.
“Now I have to calm down,” said Muti more quietly as they separated, each still holding each other’s arms. “Your piece gave me a lot of electricity! You promise that you will write a piece for me?”
“Sure!” responded Glass enthusiastically, without hesitation. “You have such sensitivity,” Muti continued. “The wonderful colors you give to the orchestra. The second movement is really atmospheric.”
“That’s wonderful that you let that come out,” said Glass, beaming. “I was very, very happy,” said Muti. “You know, I spent more nights with you than with my wife! Studying the score, of course!”
“When will I see you again?” said Glass, walking with Muti, arm-in–arm. “I hope soon,” responded Muti. “The thing is,” said Glass, “is that you took this piece to the end, and beyond.”
“There is so much more there,” said Muti. “Also, I am older. When you are older, you are more pensive. When you read the score, you have an impression. But going in, in, in more deeply, you find that behind the notes, there are so many other things.”
Muti and Glass were both so pleased with the CSO performances of the Glass Eleventh Symphony that a recording of it was released in June as the centerpiece of Muti’s last recording as CSO music director, “Contemporary American Composers.” CSO-commissioned works by composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery and CSO violist and composer Max Raimi were also included.
Beginning in his new role as music director emeritus for life, which officially began September 1, Muti will open the 2023-24 season with three programs, across two weeks, which include the first subscription program of the season September 21-26, with music of Liadov, Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite and the Brahms Second Symphony. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos will perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and music of Giordano, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Verdi will also be performed for the Symphony Ball on September 23.
The third program takes place September 28-30 and includes Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Italian”), Richard Strauss‘ “Aus Italien” and the world premiere of Glass’ “The Triumph of the Octagon.” Glass’ piece will also be given its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall as part of a two-concert Muti/CSO gala opening to its 2023-24 season on October 4 and 5.
“You can see the octagon here in my office,” Muti said, pointing to a large framed photo of Castel del Monte when we did a broadcast announcing the 2023-24 season last February. The first time we had an in-person interview in his downstairs studio at Orchestra Hall back in early 2011, Muti pointed to the same framed photo on his wall and related the story. “It’s the thirteenth-century castle of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, in Puglia, in the south of Italy. When I first saw this castle, I was five years old. They brought me during the night from the Adriatic coast to the castle, all night long, in a horse-drawn carriage. And when they opened the curtain in the carriage, I saw this,” Muti said, pointing to the castle. “Since that moment, this castle has remained in my mind. The philosophy of Frederick has been always in my heart, all my life. He’s been a sort of angel, a companion. A friend. He was a genius in everything.
“Becoming older, I thought, one day I want to buy a little piece of land in front of the castle and I want to spend my last years sitting there and looking at the castle. I have read everything about Frederick Hohenstaufen. He was emperor of Germany, but king of Napoli. The father was the emperor, but the mother was a Sicilian princess. So because he was very smart, he preferred to live in the south of Italy than to stay in Germany,” said Muti, tongue-in-cheek.
“And so, I have a little property of stone houses very near the castle, actually, one kilometer from the castle, 500 meters from the front window, the hall of the throne. You can see here all of my property,” he said, pointing to it on the framed picture. “It’s very poor land, but full of poetry: nothing rich. And this is the last castle that now has world heritage. And this castle was built for the mind, to put together people of science, philosophy, mathematics. Not for war, not for prison, not for hunting. It is a mysterious castle.”
“It’s his last castle,” Muti added. “He built so many castles in the south and north of Italy. This special castle is associated with the number eight, which is everywhere. There are eight towers and the number eight is repeated. It’s sort of a symbolic, mysterious and metaphysical number.”
No doubt Glass heard the same story while visiting Muti’s studio in February of 2022 while attending the final two CSO performances of his Symphony No. 11.
“I spoke so much about this castle,” admitted Muti. “But I didn’t say to Glass, ‘Write a piece of music about this.’ Maybe he was fascinated by my description of this castle? The triumph of the octagon is the triumph of this castle of Frederick Hohenstaufen.
“The number eight is the infinite to the Arabs. Frederick was not only a genius in everything: science, culture, the law. He was also the person, the king, who put together peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims. We would like to have somebody like him who is able to do something like this today! The castle was built with the influence of all three of these different cultures. It’s a masterpiece.”
In a Composer’s Note written for the world premiere of “The Triumph of the Octagon” that will be published in the CSO program book, Glass relates that “It was a thrill to hear this great orchestra and conductor in the hall where I would visit as a student [at the University of Chicago] in the early 1950s. After those performances we began conversations about writing a new piece specifically for this orchestra with the initial idea to create an ‘Adagio for Muti.’ The final title of the work came from a suggestion from Maestro Riccardo Muti about Castel del Monte, a thirteenth century southeastern castle in Italy.
“The mystery of this ancient place and the uniqueness of its geometric proportions, specifically its eight octagonal towers was an interesting catalyst; while I have written music about people, places, events and cultures, I cannot recall ever composing a piece about a building. 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. I dedicate this work to Maestro Muti, in honor of his many successes as conductor of the CSO, and important contributions to the world of music.”
“It’s a wonderful ensemble, this orchestra,” Glass said to me at a reception following the final CSO performance of his Eleventh Symphony. “I’ve been listening to it since I was fifteen years old. I lived here from fifty-two to fifty-six, five years in all. It really is amazing, isn’t it?”
Did Glass notice the new bust of Fritz Reiner in the lobby, I wondered? “Yes!” he said, wide-eyed. “You know, in those days, I couldn’t go up to Reiner and talk to him. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. I would get a student ticket in the gallery—you could hear everything up there—and get on the Illinois Central and go home. The aura is still here. It’s an amazing orchestra. In the fifties, we used to say that the best orchestra in America was Chicago. I still think it’s true.”
Philip Glass’ “The Triumph of the Octagon” has its world premiere performances September 28-30 at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, cso.org.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org