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Maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concert at
Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, Jan. 20, 2017. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Riccardo Muti makes grand return to La Scala with CSO tour

SHARE Riccardo Muti makes grand return to La Scala with CSO tour
SHARE Riccardo Muti makes grand return to La Scala with CSO tour

Milan, Italy — To look at its plain exterior, you’d think the famed La Scala opera house plays second fiddle to this city’s magnificent gothic cathedral just a few steps away. But La Scala is the beating heart of Italian culture, and the theater inside is a six-tiered, gilded jewel box lined with red plush. Last Friday night,the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the first of two sold-out concerts in this famous musical citadel at the midpoint — and high point — of its seven-city European tour.

On the podium was CSO music director Riccardo Muti. Or so he is known in the Windy City.

But in Milan, where the maestro led La Scala for twenty years before departing over artistic quarrels in 2005, he is both musical royalty and abandoned lover, and on this historic night after a twelve-year absence, he was welcomed by an impressive group of dignitaries and assorted cultural celebrities who were eager for bygones to be bygones. Conductor Zubin Mehta, in town for rehearsals of his own, led the standing ovation that greeted Muti as he walked out onstage.

As an opera house, La Scala is configured for an orchestra to play underneath the stage, topped by singers and scenery. But on this night Muti’s American orchestra was the onstage show, and he seemed happy in that showcase. The concert’s second half was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, famous for a delightful third movement scherzo in which the string players lay down their bows and pluck the strings (“pizzicato”) in rapid rhythmic unison.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and maestro Riccardo Muti take in the ovation from a sold-out audience at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, on Jan. 20, 2017. The CSO is in the midst of its 2017 European tour. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and maestro Riccardo Muti take in the ovation from a sold-out audience at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, on Jan. 20, 2017. The CSO is in the midst of its 2017 European tour. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

As if to acknowledge in a very public way the orchestra’s skill and finesse at sticking together, Muti dropped his baton to the side and left the musicians on their own, except for a nod here and there, adding an extra frisson to what is always a hair-raising fleet streak. The maestro did the same thing again during parts of the evening’s encore, the overture to Verdi’s opera “Nabucco,” where the snare drum sounds and the pace quickens. In all, it was quite an exhibition.

Although the Tchaikovsky symphony and Verdi overture are among the most popular in the orchestral canon, Muti works at a level of detail that continually amazes. Chicago’s legendary brass sounded glorious at La Scala, not because they projected power, but because of the finesse and richness with which they capped and blended into the orchestral texture. Likewise the strings, even in an acoustic that was fairly forward and dry, achieved a serenity and silkiness of blend that was extraordinary. The emotions were wistful, dark and complex, even in the wilting inner movements, and the horn playing brooding, defiant, and ultimately triumphant.

The concert’s first half offered its own brand of virtuosity — Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan” — which was afire from the outset in a volcanic orchestral “tutti” that brimmed with passion and featured lush interludes in particular by principal oboe Alex Klein and concertmaster Robert Chen, who were splendid throughout.

The sense of history in this place is impossible to ignore. The great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and other artists peer down from the walls in various portraits and likenesses, and the pianos that Liszt and Verdi worked at are on display. CSO violinist Melanie Kupchynsky, who owns an old Italian instrument made in Florence around 1860, said she had never played in La Scala. But she couldn’t help wondering if her violin had.

It has been 36 years since the CSO was last in Milan, that time with Georg Solti conducting. Not surprisingly, only a handful of musicians still playing in the orchestra made that 1981 trek. Among them is percussionist James Ross.

Deadly events in central Italy — an earthquake followed by an avalanche that left the country mesmerized as rescue efforts continued — led Muti to address the La Scala crowd by microphone at the outset. He had planned a quiet and very beautiful lyrical piece called “Contemplazione” (Contemplation), by a beloved if lesser-known 19th-century Italian composer, Alfredo Catalani, because the concert date happened to match the exact 125th anniversary of Catalani’s most famous opera, “La Wally,” which Muti adores. In a slight pivot, the maestro dedicated the music to the victims of the tragedy. The work had been performed in a number of cities on the tour, but its delicacy and sadness were especially powerful here. Singers have to take a breath occasionally, but a string melody can seem to go on forever, and in a strangely calming virtuoso turn, the CSO’s strings floated pianissimo lines that faded almost to the threshold of audibility.

After the concert, the maestro was swarmed with well-wishers and representatives from television and radio who wanted to know if it was true that Muti might consider coming back to Milan to conduct an opera sometime soon. With gentle humor, the maestro noted that he is not unemployed; his duties with the Chicago Symphony, as well as his regular engagements with the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna Philharmonic, not to mention the peace mission of his Cherubini Youth Orchestra, are nearly all-consuming.

Those who can read the tea leaves here saw room for hope. A robust project by the Corriere della Sera, the nation’s most widely read daily newspaper and media conglomerate, made one of several carefully prepared gestures to encourage Muti’s return. It involves a lavish set of 20 La Scala opera recordings — one from each of Muti’s 20 years — the first installment timed for release during the CSO’s visit, with prefaces to each promised from the maestro himself.

The newspaper’s editor, Luciano Fontana, personally conducted an interview with Muti before a packed house at the company’s Milan headquarters on January 19, at which the possibility of the conductor’s return to an Italian opera pit at some undefined point in the near future was pressed repeatedly, if subtly. When the maestro did not quite say no altogether, the glimmer of hope drew quiet ripples of delight.

Freelance writer Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago on the Aisle.

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