By Andrew Patner/For the Sun-Times
Posters and mailings. Television and radio ads. Banners and telephone campaigns. And soon, at least one lighted downtown skyscraper.
In case you’ve missed it, Riccardo Muti is coming to Chicago.
Much of the classical music world faces various crises and several major symphony orchestras are turning to new generations of conductors or beating the drums for American accents on the podium as a means of attracting and retaining audiences. But the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, rarely an institution to be moved by the trends of others, is putting its institutional and fiscal strength and its strong artistic heritage behind one of the last busily active European conductors with deep roots in the 20th century heyday of the great orchestra and opera leaders: Riccardo Muti.
“Chicago is very, very fortunate,” said German theater and opera director Jurgen Flimm, former intendant of the Salzburg Festival and incoming intendant of the Berlin Staatsoper (where Muti ‘s CSO predecessor Daniel Barenboim is music director) last month in an interview in Salzburg. Flimm calls Muti, “A unique figure today. A great musician and conductor who is also a real man of the theater, a scholar and a person with a great sense of the audience and his musical colleagues.”
CSO President Deborah F. Rutter had Muti in her sights from the time Barenboim announced in 2004 that he would be leaving Chicago after two more years. “I had a strong feeling that he would connect in an exciting and meaningful way with this orchestra and we saw that come to be once we were able to put our schedules together,” she said recently in Chicago. “But the wide range of his interests in what he wants to accomplish in Chicago, and with the CSO and the depth of commitment and time that he is already giving us has just been overwhelming.”
Muti, 69, as knowledgeable and experienced as he is in the music and traditions of his predecessors, though, is not a man who lives in the past.
“You hear this said, and not only of me,” Muti observed last month at Salzburg Festival, where he has led opera and concert performances each summer for the last 40 years. “‘So-and-so lives in the past.’ But this is a misunderstanding. How is this even possible? Music exists in the present, and only in the present.
“Of course a conductor must know the history of music and must know how works have been performed, especially by the greatest artists, the giants. But he does not operate a big tape player or a puppet show. He makes music now, working only with the score on the paper and the musicians sitting in front of him.”
And for those who have experienced Muti leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whether in Chicago’s Symphony Center or on tour in Europe in 2007, that “now” is a powerful one. When Muti and an orchestra are connecting, there’s an electricity and a spontaneity that one rarely sees or feels in the concert hall.
New York audiences, critics and musicians witnessed this night after night when Muti made his much-belated Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s rarely performed opera “Attila” earlier this year.
The members of the Met orchestra, like members of many opera orchestras sheltered by a recessed pit, are not known for wanting to stick around after the music stops. But each of these performances found these experienced and perhaps sometimes jaded musicians giving Muti their own standing ovation. After the last performance, a single-file line formed as the musicians offered Muti thanks and asked him to return again.
“That’s the effect the maestro has on an orchestra,” said Charles Vernon, bass trombone in the CSO since 1986, who played for the five seasons before that under Muti in the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Just look at how excited people are on the stage. Look at both the respect and the joy that you can see — that’s tangible. When the idea came to me that after our wonderful tour with him three years ago we ought to write him individual letters telling him what we thought of the time with him, I barely even needed to ask anyone. They just poured in!”
And if there is music that Muti has kept in his repertoire through four major music directorships — Florence’s Maggio Musicale festival, London’s Philharmonia, the Philadelphia Orchestra and 19 years at Milan’s fabled La Scala opera house — it is still often new to other ensembles, or at least has not been played by them in many seasons, when he puts it on their calendars.
“For certain critics, there is no victory,” Muti said with a scowl. “If you play ‘the classic works,’ then you are living in the past. If you play music of Cherubini or Hindemith or Honegger or something less known by, say, Berlioz or Prokofiev, then you hear, ‘Why is he playing that?’ Or they say, ‘He does not play new music.’ But I have given hundreds of premieres, and then they say, ‘Well, he is not serious about this.’ Really?”
Some of this certainly relates to a still powerful idea that both the core repertoire for a symphony orchestra and those who can best interpret it should come from central Europe and Germany.
“Can you imagine making this argument — that Italy is no source, should have no influence — to Mozart? To Beethoven? To Schubert? To Richard Strauss? To anyone who ever heard Toscanini? They would just laugh aloud! An Italian conductor is not superior per se to a German or Austrian or Hungarian conductor,” Muti said. “But he does bring certain things to his profession, especially if he trained seriously in the opera house, as I did, and knows what it is to work closely with singers, as I have, who can inspire and inform.”
This was, of course, Muti ‘s own training and upbringing in his native southern Italy. “I sometimes suggest, and not in jest, that no one should be allowed to conduct who has not seriously studied composition for 10 years, who cannot write out a work in harmony, create a fugue, etc., etc. Youth is a beautiful thing. But we need knowledge and depth as well as youth.”
Norman Carol, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for almost 30 years, including Muti ‘s 12-year tenure there and long periods before and after, told music publishers Ovation Press in a post-retirement interview that “in the case of Muti, I really don’t know of any other conductor from whom I learned more — and this was at a later stage in my career. Not only about music but philosophy, history, politics, you name it.
“He was quite an inspiration on almost every level. He was quite astounding in his knowledge and how he made even the orchestra rehearsals … extremely interesting.”
Despite such uniform reaction from musicians who work with him, Muti said, “I am very tough with myself. I never like what I do. Wally Toscanini, the daughter of [Arturo] Toscanini, when I said to her I am never happy with what I do, she said to me, in La Scala, ‘My father, when he was 80 years old, and he would still conduct “Traviata,” every time after a performance, or after a concert or after a recording session, he went home’ — and when his wife, Carla, was still alive and she would be preparing the risotto — ‘he went through the score again after the performance — at the age of 80! — to see what went wrong and why it went wrong!’
“I am not Toscanini, and I don’t know if I will become 80, but it’s very important that the people in Chicago, especially the musicians, who have invited me, know — I am coming not to make a career, first because what I’ve done, I’ve done. But to make good music, to improve myself. If you are stable, you are dead; there’s only two choices, higher or lower, but there must be movement. I want to put my energy, my experience and my desire to do these things. First, to make great music with this orchestra. Second, to reintroduce this orchestra to America — to take them to many parts of the country where they have not played or have not played in many years. Third, to show the rest of the world how great is this orchestra, how great is this institution coming from Chicago, coming from America.
“And then,” he said, speaking of his plans, whose initial preparation stages are well under way, to bring the CSO and its musicians to Chicago-area youth who are severely at risk and even incarcerated, “I want to take this orchestra and make a connection with young people whom we have forgotten, whom we ignore, who deserve to hear this great music that they do not know but have the same right to as anyone else. If they are in poverty, forgotten, in prison, I want to reach them the way we have reached other people for so many years.
“After more than 40 years in this profession, I have seen many happy audiences and I have heard much applause and many ‘bravos.’ I want at this point to see in the eyes of these children that we have a connection, that we have a shared humanity, that we acknowledge them. This is the next phase, and I am very much looking forward to entering it in Chicago.”