CHICAGO — The new work was titled The Triumph of the Octagon, but given the circumstances it might have been subtitled “The Vitality of Octogenarians.” Not present for the world premiere of Philip Glass‘ intriguing and quite fetching piece on Sept. 28 was the 86-year-old composer. Very much in attendance, on the podium and wholly immersed in the music’s lovely percolating performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was its recently dubbed music director emeritus for life, 82-year-old Riccardo Muti. It seemed as if a winning time was had by absolutely everyone.
Muti and Glass are newfound pals. It was only last year, in February 2022, when the Italian conductor first programmed a work by the iconic Glass — his 11th Symphony — with the CSO at Orchestra Hall. That went so well, with sold-out houses and Glass joining Muti on stage, that the Chicago Symphony recorded the 11th Symphony and promptly commissioned this new work, which maestro and orchestra will repeat Oct. 5 at Carnegie Hall in New York and again during a European tour in January.
The idea for The Triumph of the Octagon apparently sprang from a photo of the eight-sided Castel del Monte in southern Italy that Glass observed on the wall of Muti’s studio in Chicago. The 13th-century edifice, with towers at each corner, endures as a formidable presence of limestone, marble, and fragmented coral-infused rock. Indeed, the music sparked by that ancient prospect possesses its own aura of timelessness.
Running about 13 minutes, Octagon wells up gently from strings and harp before progressively adding oboe, clarinet, and flute. While it displays the repeated patterns long familiar in Glass’ music, the new work also summons the sense of antiquity that echoes through Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The motion of Octagon is not so much forward as side to side, or perhaps up and down like the quiescent rise and fall of a calm sea. In that spirit, the work might be heard as a tone poem, but in its brevity and stasis it feels more like a sunlit spray, an arabesque.
I also suspect that if most listeners took away any impression at all, they certainly will remember the ending. Amid the music’s constant rocking and steady swell, it suddenly — on a weak beat — stops. Quits. Terminates. There was Muti, both arms extended over his head in mid-flow, and…instant silence, utterly unexpected. It was very strange, as if Glass’ pen had run out of ink, and he just sent along what the pen allowed.
But the tapestry of music that forms Octagon afforded both an engaging pleasure and a testament to the ensemble elegance that Muti fostered in a 13-year run as CSO music director that ended in June. That polished, supple blending of strings and winds — Chicago has always been touted for its glorious brasses — was everywhere evident in a concert that also included a brisk, buoyant turn through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian) and a rare encounter with the young Richard Strauss’ ambitious tone poem Aus Italien, a long, busy, still-formative venture into the genre.