Muti, the CSO, & The B-Sides

Three hours before my meeting with Riccardo Muti, world famous maestro and current leader of the Chicago Symphony, I looked out the airplane window. The vast flatness of Illinois. None too scenic — but certainly more interesting than the Italian grammar textbook I’d been wrestling with since San Francisco. The maestro and I were to discuss The B-Sides, my orchestral suite he would conduct that week, and southern Italians appreciate a good chat in their native tongue.

And he’s quite old-school. Lots of Lei’s and convoluted subjunctives.

So I rolled off the plane clutching both textbook and score, my head filled with music and phrases, and looked ahead to my week in Chicago: three subscription concerts, an off-site club show, season planning for the year ahead, lectures, luncheons, everything short of a trapeze act.

I believe in the military they call this hitting the ground shooting.

Luckily, I was making music not war, and the week was a joy. The CSO is the Ferarri of orchestras, equipped to handle any kind of music, and while Muti is known for his interpretations of 19th greats, he’s devoted huge amounts of his career to living composers.

So when the door of his dressing room opened — after the pleasantries and, yes, convoluted subjunctives — I watched him open The B-Sides and marveled at the sheer volume of scribbling on every page. For a gracious and kind man, he’s quite a musical animal: when he commits, he goes whole-hog.

And for a man of 70 who has the world eating from his hand, Muti displayed a remarkable humility in regards to the electronics. Locking to a beat track, he explained, is not something he had ever done. It was not the most natural of arrangements for an old-school maestro, he told me — but he liked a good challenge.

Beyond the electronic element, he was also intrigued by some of the textures. He asked about the sliding string harmonics in “Aerosol Melody Hanalei” (which images a melody evaporating at cadence points), or the jazzy grit of “Temescal Noir” (which reimagines foggy San Francisco noir films in in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood). And he appreciated the drama of the central movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” which sets a NASA recording of a spacewalk to music. A southern Italian loves drama (especially if he’d led La Scala for two decades).

The concerts were amazing. The dusky, eerie opening — “Broom of the System” — swept into the house, with its off-kilter grooves of sandpaper blocks and ‘future clocks’ (morphing electronica grooves). The ‘broom’ is perhaps the hardest movement of all, with a mischievous chimney-sweep rhythm that hiccups every measure. I’d had a wonderful ‘first try’ with the orchestra a year ago, when they performed Music From Underground Spaces under Carlos Kalmar. But The B-Sides is a longer, much more involved piece, and every single player gave it their best. And that’s an amazing thing with a band this good.

By the time we reached the frenetic final movement ¬— “Warehouse Medicine,” an homage to Midwestern warehouse parties — I was actually watching this iconic maestro groove to hardcore techno. Out-of-tune pizzicato, hair-on-fire woodwind figuration, and massive brass hits were accompanied by two subwoofers (which, during rehearsals, Muti accused of playing with his pacemaker).

After my piece was done, I scurried through a side-door into the house to hear the Schumann concerto played by Yo-Yo Ma. Shifting gears is not quite it: how about jumping from one moving vehicle to another. This group can do that without batting a hundred eyes.

What an orchestra, what a maestro. The CSO right now is on top of the world. Thanks to everyone for making it happen.