By Dennis Polkow
Two years ago, Riccardo Muti inaugurated his tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a free outdoor public concert in Millennium Park that brought out throngs of music lovers and curiosity seekers. This year, Muti and the CSO are returning to the park Friday night, this time along with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir for another free event.
“I have wonderful memories of the last concert in Millennium Park,” says Muti from his home in Italy as he is preparing to leave for Chicago. “The atmosphere was fantastic. I could feel that the public had such warm feeling for the orchestra. Even though there were many thousands of people, the way that they followed the performance was so intense. I could feel that the audience was with the orchestra, was with the music. I hope—I am sure—it will be the same thing now.”
Unlike the event in September of 2010 which featured a handful of pieces by various composers, Muti has decided to present a single work “very dear to me” at this year’s outdoor concert, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” which he performed last season at CSO subscription concerts and will perform on tour at Carnegie Hall next month.
Muti also recorded the piece when he was music director of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra which Muti considers “still a good recording” and also conducted a 1980 landmark performance with the Berlin Philharmonic that the composer himself attended and was so moved by that he called it “a second premiere.” Muti was extremely proud of the fact that Orff went back and made some tempo and dynamic changes to the score based on particulars of that performance.
Nonetheless, why this particular piece as a single work for a citywide concert? “I agree with [medievalist] Wolfgang Maaz that, along with Umberto Eco [author of “The Name of the Rose”], Orff has created the most enduring and accessible modern image of the Middle Ages,” says Muti. “The piece is extremely popular, at least the beginning and end of the piece,” says Muti. “It has been used so many times in so many commercials that even people not familiar with music will recognize this piece immediately and will be inclined to follow the rest of the piece, I hope. So I think for a concert so popular with so many thousands of people, ‘Carmina Burana’ is music everybody will be able to recognize and feel close to the performance. Also, the piece is very engaging. It’s very rhythmical and people are taken with it. It is not a piece based on counterpoint. It is very metrical; not difficult to absorb.”
Indeed, some have viewed these very qualities as making the piece simple and banal. “They are wrong,” Muti insists. “First, the orchestration is fantastic. It is a fantastic score. The score is written by a master. And a lot of time, he uses rhythms that come from his concept of education of the young with rhythms that come from ancient Greece and methods to educate people, so the music is quite elemental: simple, but refined. He didn’t want to write the deepest score in the history of music. He just put music to texts that are typical of the old university students of the medieval period where the students used to sing to escape from terrible things of life. In Italy, still now, students sing songs that are very similar to these old texts.”
Some of the piece’s notoriety may in part be due to the way it is often performed. “The piece is always sung like a funny piece, a joyful piece, with people smiling,” Muti explains. “It’s a very dramatic and pessimistic piece, like all of these texts of these old students of these ancient universities and mainly have a negative meaning. Life is a disaster because fortune is hot and cold and goes up and down, like the phases of the moon. This is the message. So even the comic passages must have a sense of dark atmosphere. The texts are very dramatic. Even the beginning, ‘Our fortune, our destiny is like the moon, it goes up and down. Our life is a test.’ You cannot say these things smiling. I always say to the chorus, ‘Please, don’t smile, don’t laugh during this piece. It’s a tragic piece.’ Even conductors smile when they do this piece because they don’t get the message.”
Another notoriety of “Carmina Burana” is Orff’s reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. “Sometimes, people have a certain distance from the piece,” Muti admits, “a resistance because Carl Orff was around during the Nazi period. Fortunately, I was not there at that time. I don’t judge and I don’t know. I don’t know who Carl Orff really was. For me, I look only at the musician, at the score, and my human experience was with a man of great kindness. He was very cultivated and extremely gentle, extremely educated, cultivated in his attitudes, kind and delicate. We know that the piece had some problems during the Nazi era anyway.
“I don’t believe that there is music that pushes people to do bad things; it is the use of the music that can be wrong. A crescendo of Bruckner, Wagner ‘Walküre’ or other moments of the ‘Ring,’ if you are taken by this music that is so exciting and you use it to underline the superiority of one group of people against others you are doing something that is musically and ethically wrong. But I don’t know any music that inspires bad things or bad ideas in the music itself. You can say, ‘I like this music,’ or ‘I don’t like this music,’ but not ‘This music is bad music because it inspired bad people or bad things.’
“The Nazis also used the finale of Liszt’s ‘Les preludes’ to announce to the nation that there was a victory. So the poor prelude of Liszt, which is actually a spiritual piece, became the sound of terror. And for many years you could not play ‘Les preludes’ in the United States or Israel because the older people had this in their minds. The finale should be an expression of freedom, liberty, brotherhood. The wide color of C Major like the tonality of the [Mozart] ‘Jupiter’ Symphony or the moment in ‘The Creation’ of Haydn from the darkness and the chaos to when light appears, C Major again. That is the tonality of the end of the prelude and should not sound like a war, but like the victory of the spirit.”
In the case of “Carmina Burana,” the message for Muti is clear and far more hedonistic: “Our life is miserable, it is full of difficult and terrible things. So we should drink, we should make love, so we can forget the difficult and terrible aspects that life gives to us. When you have this concept that life is miserable, what do you do? You kill yourself, or you try to enjoy every moment that you can, while you can. And you try to forget everything in the wine and in making love. Everybody drinks because everybody wants to forget, even the priests, the monks, the nuns. This is tragic. If you think of this laughing and smiling, it is clear you do not get the message. To sink in the water, in the ocean, to forget everything.”
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Chicago Children’s Choir and soprano Rosa Feola, countertenor Antonio Giovannini and baritone Audun Iversen will perform Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” at 6:30pm Friday, September 21 at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. Admission is free, no tickets required but early arrival is strongly recommended. (312)294-3000.