RICCARDO MUTI LEADS CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA’S HISTORIC FIRST PERFORMANCES OF PHILIP GLASS’ SYMPHONY NO. 11 WITH THE COMPOSER IN ATTENDANCE
CHICAGO—Music Director Riccardo Muti led historic and critically acclaimed performances of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11 on February 17-19, representing the Orchestra’s first performances of the work in Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times called it a “milestone performance.” Philip Glass was present at the performances and Muti invited the composer to the podium, where he received enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation from the audience and the musicians of the Orchestra. Glass also acknowledged the great performances by the CSO, led by Muti.
In a personal message included in the concert program book for the occasion, Glass noted that he had attended CSO concerts led by then Music Director Fritz Reiner in the 1950s, while a student at University of Chicago and “heard much of what turned out to be the masterpieces of twentieth century music…and learned more about symphonic music during that time than perhaps any other.” His note went on to add: “It might go unsaid, but I’m going to say it: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the finest orchestras in the world. It’s a great privilege for any composer to have their work performed by this world class ensemble — doubly so with the delight of having Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting and Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven on the first half of the program.”
CSO, Riccardo Muti deliver exhilarating — and milestone performance — of Philip Glass symphony
– Kyle MacMillan | February 18, 2022
Philip Glass has surpassed Beethoven’s nine symphonies, a number that has represented a kind of psychological barrier for some composers, and he shows no signs of stopping. The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., is set to premierehis 15th creation in the form next month.
Thursday evening in Orchestra Hall, music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took on Glass’ Symphony No. 11 (2016), and the performance, though not a world premiere, was still a milestone.
First off, it was the first-ever performance of a Glass symphony in Chicago by any ensemble. The Chicago Symphony had previously only performed the composer’s orchestral piece, “Facades,” on its subscription series in 1999 and featured a suite on a MusicNow program in 2007-08.
For Muti, who has never previously conducted any music by Glass, and the Chicago Symphony to take on this Symphony, is a sign of how far the composer’s standing has risen in recent decades in the classical world.
Even though he was a pioneer of the influential minimalist movement, Glass was shunned for several decades by certain facets of the classical world in part because his iterative style was seen as simplistic or naïve.
It also didn’t help that Glass circumvented the mainstream classical establishment early in his career, forming his own experimental ensemble in 1968 that operated in some ways like a rock band, performing on college campuses and in alternative venues.
But, now, at age 85, as this concert and the standing ovation that followed the symphony made clear, Glass has become something of an éminence grise. The composer marked the occasion with an unusual letter to attendees that was tucked into the program.
It offered thanks and pointed out the composer’s ties to Chicago, where he came in the 1950s to study at the University of Chicago and spent many evenings listening to conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.
“This kind of exposure is crucial to a young musician’s formation,” he wrote in his letter. “I learned more about symphonic music during that time than perhaps any other.”
It is not surprising that the CSO began its exploration of Glass’ symphonies with the No. 11, a sprawling, exhilarating three-movement work with a super-sized orchestration that included eight percussionists, two harpists and even the rarely heard, low-register contrabass clarinet.
As Phillip Huscher points out in his unusually long and enthusiastic program note for this work, Glass had moved away from his early minimalism in his more recent compositions, adding new layers of rhythmic and harmonic complexity.
But in the Symphony No. 11, especially in the first and arguably most successful of the movements, Glass’ returns to some of those early hypnotic, repetitive devices intermixing them with newer elements to create an intoxicating, sometimes breathless kaleidoscopic swirl of overlapping sound and texture.
Muti admirably negotiated all the moving parts and intricate repetitions, and the musicians all seemed to embrace Glass’ distinctive style, with notably fine playing from the brass, especially the trombones, and the harps and percussion.
But as exciting as it was to witness the orchestra’s foray into symphonic Glass, the evening’s highlight arguably came on the first half, following the Overture to “The Ruins of Athens,” Op. 113, a rarely heard little gem by Beethoven.
London-based pianist Mitsuko Uchida, a regular and much-loved guest artist with the CSO, returned to perform the work with which she made her debut with the orchestra in 1986 — Beethoven’s stalwart Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58. She delivered just the kind of performance that would be expected of this veteran soloist — thoughtful, probing and profound — with Muti and the orchestra right there with her. She was especially effective in the slow second movement, offering a spacious, reflective, introspective and, at times, other-worldly take.
The emphasis with Uchida is always on the poetry, so this was never going to be a performance that emphasized the concerto’s sweep or grandeur. But she was able to deliver power and punch when necessary, not to mention some wonderfully light and agile passagework.
The audience gave her an extended standing ovation, recognizing both her spellbinding performance and no doubt her esteemed place in the international keyboard world.
Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times, February 18, 2022
The CSO Dazzles in Bravura Performances of Two Century-Spanning Works
– Hedy Weiss | February 19, 2022
Friday night’s concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was an altogether bedazzling example of what can happen when a concert juxtaposes two works of genius that span more than two centuries, and when both are performed with breathtaking virtuosity by every artist on the Orchestra Hall stage, and with maestro Riccardo Muti back in command on the podium.
The pairing began with Beethoven’s demonically difficult 1806 “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major,” with Mitsuko Uchida as the incomparable soloist. And it was followed by Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 11,” which had its world premiere in 2017, and now received a volcanic rendering by a monumental gathering of CSO musicians. The piece turns out to be a fascinating suggestion of how classical music has evolved over the centuries, at once capturing the temper of the time in which it is composed while also employing the essentials of the “classical music” language.
First, the Beethoven — a familiar masterwork, but one to which Uchida brought both her highly distinctive interpretive powers and her astonishing technique. Listening to her astounding ability to modulate every note and chord brought to mind Leonardo da Vinci’s meticulous drawings that so ideally captured the movement patterns and varied forces driving waves and water currents.
The concerto opens with a sense of quietude and then builds to rapid-fire finger work rendered with impeccable clarity and fluidity. Uchida’s articulation is brilliant, and though physically slight she can bring immense power, speed and weight to her playing, as well as a lacelike delicacy. And at the end of the concerto’s first movement, where Beethoven (himself a gifted pianist and violist) challenges the soloist by simultaneously setting the right hand into a hard-driving vibrating mode while the left hand plays a thrilling, keyboard spanning melody, Uchida finessed both challenges. And she drove Friday night’s audience into spontaneous outbursts of sheer amazement.
No matter what the challenge, Uchida put her distinctive stamp on the work. And the orchestra (with beautiful work by the strings, winds, brass and timpani) followed Maestro Muti’s intense attention to her distinctive, jewel- like phrasing that felt incredibly modern in its way. All in all, a musical lovefest on every level.
And now, on to Glass’ monumental “Symphony No. 11,” which he wrote to celebrate his 80th birthday. (He is now 85).
In a wonderfully personal note inserted into each CSO program the composer (renowned early on for his frequent use of repetition, for such groundbreaking operas as “Einstein on the Beach,” “Satyagraha,” and “Akhnaten,” and for a great deal more) noted that he considered Chicago one of his artistic homes. As a student at the University of Chicago (where he studied math and philosophy in the 1950s before moving on to Juilliard in New York, and to mentoring by Nadia Boulanger in Paris) he attended concerts by the CSO when Fritz Reiner was its music director. And he added that it was then that he “heard much of what turned out to be the masterpieces of twentieth century music… and learned more about symphonic music during that time than perhaps any other.” He also noted that this concert marked the first performance of one of his symphonies in Chicago, and that he was thrilled to be in the company of the CSO, maestro Muti and Uchida.
The 11th Symphony is scored for an immense orchestra that barely fit on the Orchestra Hall stage and included a piano, celesta, harps and an unusually large percussion section complete with snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, hi-hat, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, anvil, temple blocks, tom- toms shaker, tambourine, woodblock, glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone. And Glass’ wonderfully ingenious use of every instrument on the stage was thrilling, and out of the ordinary, and driven by the sort of elaborate rhythmic patterns and repetitions that signaled this work could only be a “Glass-work,” while also being infused with a subtle streak of dreamy, modern romanticism, rich theatricality and a hypnotic unpredictability.
Maestro Muti was clearly having a fabulous time with this challenging piece (which I wish the CSO could record). And before raising his baton to conduct the work he turned to the box where Glass was seated and playfully quipped: “I’ve spent many nights working on your piece so I expect that when it’s over you will come onstage.” And indeed, he did, with countless bows and thunderous applause.
Meanwhile, I left the concert wondering what Beethoven would have thought about both Glass’ symphony and Uchida’s performance of his concerto. He might well have been awestruck by both.
And one final note: Anyone who believes that great artists can “age out” of their peak might consider that Glass is 85, Muti is 80 and Uchida is 73. Every one of them continues to be at the very height of their formidable powers.
Hedy Weiss, WTTW, February 19, 2022
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