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Muti Closes Season with Bates' Magical, Musical Bestiary

06.19.15
Mason Bates
The Chicago Tribune

Certainly art and sport jostle for attention in Mason Bates' "Anthology of Fantastic Zoology," a CSO commission that was receiving its world premiere. Bates, who wrote it as his "swan song" to the orchestra upon completion of his five years as CSO composer in residence, took his title and inspiration from a 1957 work of magical-realist fiction by Jorge Luis Borges that conjures mythical beasts from folklore and literature. The 2014 piece is dedicated to Muti.

At just over 30 minutes, "Anthology of Fantastic Zoology" is the largest piece Bates has composed to date. A huge percussion battery essentially co-opts the role of electronica, typically a key element of Bates' orchestral arsenal. While individual movement titles reference nymphs, sirens, a sprite and a gryphon, this fantastical menagerie becomes a pretext for a grand, playful, surprising, exuberantly colorful concerto for orchestra, one that pays homage to both the full ensemble and to individual members of that ensemble.

Parts of "Anthology" settle rather too easily into cinematic lushness (I kept hearing Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock-soundtrack music in the running string figures), but how brilliantly engineered and integrated are the score's sly sonic quirks and how beautifully the music plays to the strengths of the Chicago musicians. This is great, audience-pleasing fun going down. Thursday's crowd clearly enjoyed it enormously.

Muti did an air-tight job of coordinating the many moving parts, while his players negotiated the tricky minefields of cross-rhythms and other technical hurdles with amazing dexterity and precision. I can imagine other orchestras wanting to take up this accessible orchestral showpiece but I can't imagine any of them playing it more incisively than the CSO. Bates received multiple bows. 

Read the full review here