There is joy in Riccardo Muti’s voice.
The maestro, music director and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010, is most happy to be back in the city, he says, returning to live music performances at Orchestra Hall for the first time since February 2020.
The return began two weeks ago with Muti and the CSO kicking off the orchestra’s 2021 fall residency, which ends this weekend with three performances beginning Thursday night.
“The fact that the orchestra here is reunited after 19 months is something of importance not only to the orchestra itself and the musicians who have once again found their musical family, but for the public as well, who can come [once again to the concerts],” Muti says during a recent chat. “Many times governments closed theaters too early and too easily.”
Muti is referring to the pandemic shutdown of all theaters and cultural attractions beginning in March 2020 that devastated the entertainment industry. It is not something he suffered lightly, but Muti was vocal even back then about the need to return to live performance in some capacity. And he did just that, performing in his adopted hometown of Ravenna, Italy, and later in Vienna, Austria, on New Year’s Eve.
A rebel move? Perhaps, but Muti says it was something the world needed during the darkest days of the pandemic, which is still taking the lives of persons across the globe.
“This fact that, in nearly the whole world, theaters have remained empty, orchestras were reduced to silence, is something that has never been seen before,” he told the Associated Press in May.
For his European concerts, Muti and the various orchestras and choruses were tested daily and social distancing on stage was adhered to. He says there were no reported cases of COVID as a result from any of the performances, the majority of which were open-air. (The New Year’s Eve concert was presented without an audience, and the orchestra was masked for the entire performance per COVID protocols in place at the time in Vienna.)
“During the pandemic, doctors heal the body, which was and is the most important thing,” Muti explains. “To save as many lives as possible is the most important thing. But the virus killed the economy, too, around the world. That’s no reason it should kill the culture. ... There were many discussions about the possibility to still have concerts, to have theater, during the pandemic because that’s the medicine for your brain, for your soul, for your heart.
“... That was the reason I said we have to do music, but not in a superficial way,” he continues, “but with respect for the rules and laws.”
While he and the CSO were separated by an ocean and a pandemic for over a year, Muti says they remained in contact at all times, sometimes via virtual music performances.
“I stayed in contact with the musicians, sometimes with video, sometimes we talked on the phone. Many times the musicians sent musical homages. So I was never separated from my orchestra. We never truly lost contact. By the time [I returned], in theory I had been here all the time,” he says with a chuckle. “If as a music director you have a wonderful relationship with your musicians, you are like a father to them. I can be like a grandfather, considering my age. [Laughs]. It was a festive atmosphere and it was clear the musicians were eager to play together once again.”
Muti’s choice for the season’s opening program: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica (Heroic).”
“It was my choice because of the title — an homage to the all the musicians, to the public who had lost the opportunity to hear a great orchestra, and to all the people who lost their lives during this pandemic.
“Now we must return to normality. Piano, piano (slowly, slowly) we are going back to normality, to the beauty of music, art and culture.”