For a period of two decades beginning in 1972, as guest conductor, principal guest conductor, and music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti wrote a first grand chapter in the musical history of our country. Now, as music director designate of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, taking charge officially in September 2010 on an initial contract running five years, he is poised to write another.
Facing an audience across the footlights, Muti is apt to strike audiences as solemn and reserved. His demeanor when acknowledging a standing ovation tends less to the triumphal than to the pensive or bemused. He is not one to flash a smile at every passing camera. "Why?" he once demanded when a photographer requested one. "I am a serious person."
In rehearsals, the stern impression dissipates quickly. No maestro holds his musicians to a higher technical or expressive standard, yet the atmosphere Muti typically creates is relaxed, marrying intense concentration to the sheer joy of exploring scores as varied as Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, a Schubert overture, a Brahms serenade, Puccini's Tosca, Orff's Carmina burana, or the tambourine suites of Bernard Rands. Through his teacher Antonino Votto, principal assistant to Arturo Toscanini, Muti traces his pedigree back to that irascible paragon, whose doctrine of fidelity to the score come scritto—"as written"—Muti has made his own.
Like Toscanini, Muti has his detractors, who complain that he is literal, hard-driving, and inflexible. He comes under fire, too, for ignoring dictates of the early-music mafia as they pertain to composers like Haydn and Mozart. Certainly he makes no pretense of replicating the sound world of centuries past recall. "The past is dead," Muti insists. "We can't bring it back. The generations evolve. There's an evolution in the way we see the great pictures and statues and architecture of earlier centuries. The evolution is even greater in music. In reality, music doesn't exist at all. All we have are signs on paper. It's up to us to make those signs meaningful today, according to our sensibility, our intelligence, our culture, our experience."
In Muti, the artist and the teacher are one. Impatient as the rank and file is commonly known to be with conductors who "talk too much," no one fidgets or shuffles when he takes time for stories—always spontaneous, often whimsical—to illuminate historical, philosophical, or personal aspects of the imaginative task at hand. The composition may be momentous, yet the preparation is often punctuated by levity, even jokes. "Here we must give extra," Muti once urged a chorus before a Mozart Requiem under the open sky. "A lot of the sound here
goes directly to God."
That was in his adopted hometown of Ravenna, once the capital of the crumbling Roman Empire. Born in Naples on July 28, 1941, trained there and in Milan, Muti remains Italian to the core, umbilically attached to his country's history, culture, landscapes, languages, and people.
The evidence takes many forms. He quotes the Latin authors with casual familiarity and can recite great swaths of Dante. No one, it is safe to say, has ever sounded the Michelangelesque depths of the Verdi Requiem with greater authority. In 1996, when the Teatro La Fenice went up in flames, Muti—then music director of the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan—was first to reach out with support in word and deed. At the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg, where he has effectively inherited the mantle of Herbert von Karajan, he has for the past three years been resurrecting long-forgotten musical glories of 18th-century Naples. Now that that vilified and degraded metropolis is seeking to rehabilitate its former glory, there Muti is again, concertizing at the venerable, freshly renovated Teatro San Carlo. "It's the most beautiful theater in the world," he says simply. "As a Neapolitan, it's a must for me to give the city a hand." And in August, Gianni Alemanno, mayor of Rome, proudly announced that Muti had agreed to lead the Eternal City's eternally chaotic opera company, pending review of "technical" details. Assuming the arrangement works out, the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma will be mounting its first credible challenge to the artistic hegemony of La Scala within living memory.)
Italian connections aside, Muti has been a citizen of the world from virtually the day his career began, as much at home with popes, royalty, and the great and the good as with the common folk of Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Yerevan, Moscow, and New York post-9/11—trouble spots he has visited on the Ravenna Festival's annual musical pilgrimages sulle vie dell'amicizia, "on the paths of friendship."
"Five years ago, we played in Sarajevo, when the city was still filled with soldiers and littered with land mines," Muti said in late July. "A few days ago, we played there again. We had 600 voices singing 'Va, pensiero,' Verdi's beautiful chorus from Nabucco. A hundred were from Florence, the rest from cities all over Bosnia-Herzegovina: not just Sarajevo, but also Mostar, Srebenica, Tusla. There were boys and girls who lost their parents in the war, children who go to school together but never play together, still separated by religious conflicts. Singing together, they were all swept up in the same feeling. It was a moment of truth, a moment of one soul. All the barriers collapsed. All men are brothers. Beethoven was right."
As Americans, we may proudly claim Muti as one of our own, not only for his formal associations with Philadelphia and Chicago but also for a glorious intermezzo with the New York Philharmonic that began in 2006-07. As principal guest conductor in all but name, he would play towering Bruckner one week, psychedelic Scriabin another, and lambent Schubert another. Ravel's Boléro unfolded in his hands with courtly formality as a strict, Counterreformation meditation on the workings of fate. Typically he would close his season with an all-Italian evening dotted with oddments like Verdi's Ballet Music from Macbeth and guilty pleasures like Respighi's Pines of Rome. If on paper the programs looked like nothing, the flair and fantasy of the execution etched the concerts into the memory indelibly.
Announced in May 2008, the Chicago appointment was a bolt from the blue on several counts. After three decades of hard time in leadership positions with the Maggio Musicale, Florence (1969-81), the Philharmonia Orchestra, London (1972-82), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92), and La Scala (1986-2005), Muti wanted to concentrate on a select cadre of other orchestras that had long been part of his life, among them the Vienna Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and the Orchestre National de France. What was more, he was devoting serious attention to the training ensemble he had founded in 2004 for top talent from Italian music schools, the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini.
New to his list, the New York Philharmonic had mounted not one but two all-out campaigns to sign him as music director, first as successor to Kurt Masur, then as successor to Masur's successor Lorin Maazel. Twice, the board of directors and musicians were disappointed. Why, at this point in his career, would Muti want to trade his freedom for the ball-and-chain of administration, American-style? He had often said he had no such desire.
Explaining what changed his mind, Muti harks back to the summer of 1973, when he played back-to-back engagements with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center. "Chicago struck me with its power," Muti says. "Philadelphia was most remarkable for the beauty of the sound which Stokowski had created and Ormandy had maintained. Boston, I thought, was the most European in character. Distant memories! But as everyone knows, the rapport with Philadelphia was the coup de foudre." Within America, the relationship he settled into with Philadelphia was of necessity exclusive. His appointment at La Scala did nothing whatever to free up his calendar for other American dates, nor, alas, did his departure from Philadelphia in 1992, when juggling the two institutions became too burdensome.
As reported on front pages worldwide, a Byzantine political imbroglio brought the Muti era at La Scala abruptly to an end in 2005. "I served 19 years at La Scala, longer than any other music director, even Toscanini, who led the house for three separate periods and resigned three times," he says now. "And I don't regret a single day." Exceptionally among contemporary maestros at his level, he coaches his opera casts personally from first to last, examining every slightest inflection of words and music. Landmark achievements of the Muti years at La Scala included rarities by Paisiello (Lo Frate 'nnamorato), Spontini (La Vestale), Salieri (L'Europa Riconosciuta), Gluck (Armide), and the serious Rossini; world-class Mozart and Wagner; a spine-tingling Dialogues des Carmélites (commemorating the company's world premiere); and singularly authoritative Verdi, including staples unconscionably neglected for decades, notably La Traviata and Il Trovatore.
No sooner had Muti broken with La Scala than American suitors came courting, none more single-mindedly than Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony. After more than 30 years, Muti admits, he felt no immediate urge to renew old ties, but eventually Rutter wore down his resistance. She even persuaded him to give serious thought to a European tour the following year.
"I had my doubts," Muti says. "A concert is one thing. But spiritually, musically, and artistically a tour is very demanding. Without great understanding between the orchestra and the conductor, it's not really possible."
A plate of bad fish in Europe put an end to the plans for Muti's initial reunion with the Chicago musicians in 2006-07. But by this time, the European tour was on the books for the fall 2007. "I was worried," Muti confesses. "We all kept our fingers crossed. And when I finally got to Chicago, everything worked out beautifully. The sound was as powerful as I remembered it, but more flexible and more beautiful, not only in the famous brass but also in the strings and the woodwinds. Right away, we were very close to my idea of what orchestral sound should be.
Whatever I asked for, the musicians responded with passion and enthusiasm." The tour, by all accounts, was sheer bliss.
As for what lies ahead, the past is prologue. Back when Muti was entertaining overtures from the New York Philharmonic, a concerned member of the music community wondered airily in print what Muti had done in Philadelphia that might bear replication in New York. In truth, the record shows that Muti had approached his duties in exemplary fashion. Rather than perpetuate the cliché of the Philadelphia Sound, he developed a spectrum of colors and textures as various as the vast repertoire demanded. The indispensable core classics—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky—were present and accounted for, in performances at once burnished and new-minted. To these, Muti added a rich array of scores long neglected, local premieres, and commissions. Opera in concert—full-length helpings of Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini, not excerpts—lent further enrichment, for musicians and audiences alike. Beyond that, Muti shared his knowledge and passion in open rehearsals, preconcert lectures, and working sessions with the students in the orchestra of the Curtis Institute. This was cultural leadership on a heroic scale. Any city would be blessed to have him.
So now his choice has fallen on Chicago. "When I got back from that fantastic tour," Muti says, "I received letters from many individual musicians, expressing their thoughts about our music making. Piano, piano, the wall came down. I'm not taking the orchestra simply because it plays so well. My ultimate goal is not to prove again and again that I can conduct Beethoven or Stravinsky, but to bring the music of the great composers, of new composers, of composers who have rarely been heard in Chicago…to bring all these things to people who come from such different origins and religions and educations. Not just to serve an existing audience but to make it wider. Another job will be to bring the orchestra to capitals where they have never played, or not played for many years, in Russia, in Eastern Europe, around the world. But most of all, with the help of the musicians, the job is to bring music to the people of Chicago. It's Obama's city. That's not bad, no?"