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Riccardo Muti joins CSO musicians on the picket lines

For a group of people who earn a living making noise, it was a peculiarly quiet protest Tuesday morning.

Perhaps all the striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians needed was their leader.

And then Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s music director, showed up outside Symphony Center on South Michigan, kissing cheeks and asking in his native Italian, “Come stai?” How are you?

“Maestro, we’ve prepared a little music for you,” said Steve Lester, a double bass player in the orchestra for the past 41 years and chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee.

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The brass section began to play, while Muti, his arms crossed, watched approvingly from behind gray-tinted sunglasses.

A little later, Muti, who expected to begin rehearsals for a series of concerts later in the week, got down to business.

“Some people, they want to read my position — together with the musicians — like a position against the board,” said Muti, who flew in from Italy Monday. “That is not true. I am not against the board, against the trustees, the donors. I just would like that they understand and listen more carefully to the needs of musicians who represent one of the greatest orchestras in the world.”

The musicians have been on strike since Monday, saying that management wants to reduce overall salary and benefits at a time of increasing revenues from sales and donations. The CSO base salary is about $159,000, according to the musicians — lower than the Los Angeles and San Francisco symphonies.

Executives with the CSO said Sunday they were “disappointed” by the musicians’ decision to strike after 11 months of negotiations. And in a letter sent to the musicians last week, Jeff Alexander, president of the governing Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, said that management’s offer “increases your wages, improves your working conditions, preserves your earned retirement benefit . . . and maintains your excellent contract.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association said Monday it hoped to be back at the bargaining table by Friday.

Muti never specifically mentioned money Tuesday morning.

“When I hear people saying, ‘But they work three hours, four hours — not enough.’ This is very stupid because the work that you see on stage is just a small part of the work that they do at home,” said Muti, not one to mince words.

“The entire world — the musical world — is listening to what happens in Chicago,” Muti said.

He spoke about the CSO as “one of the temples of culture” in a world of increasing “crimes, violence.”

“I am here with my musicians, proud of my musicians, after, I will try to reconcile these two elements for the good of everybody,” he said.

At one point, a reporter asked Muti to speak up.

“This is my voice. Are you Beethoven? Because he couldn’t hear,” Muti said to chuckles.

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