By Dennis Polkow
It is 7am Chicago time Monday, May 5, and an extraordinary event is going on near Salzburg, Austria (local time 2pm) related to the future of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Italian conductor Riccardo Muti is signing a contract to become its tenth music director. Although it had long been speculated that Muti was a strong candidate for the post, CSO president and CEO Deborah R. Card was playing her cards with deafening silence given the enormous stakes involved. “I knew that until the ink was dry,” says Card, “there was no deal.” Card is hesitant to admit, even now, the precise moment that a deal had actually been struck.
Given that Muti had reportedly turned down the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic at least twice in recent years and had been dodgy about agreeing to the specific terms of even the role of principal guest-conductor there, Card had good reason to be concerned. New York Philharmonic executive director and former Ravinia Festival CEO Zarin Mehta publicly expressed his “disappointment” at the news of Muti’s acceptance of the Chicago Symphony music directorship, given that Muti’s Chicago appointment implicitly nullifies his guest conductorship there, which had been a key component in the Philharmonic decision to engage the relatively unknown Alan Gilbert as its next music director. New York is understandably miffed, and you have to wonder if some kind of critical backlash might be in store when Muti begins making annual Carnegie Hall trips to New York with the CSO after his music directorship takes effect in 2010.
Perhaps this is why the first of two carefully chosen interviews that Muti gave the day of the announcement itself was to the New York Times—the Chicago Symphony’s longtime New York-based publicist Mary Lou Falcone apparently attempting some sort of damage control within a spurned city and Muti insisting that he did not so much prefer one orchestra over another as that the timing of the Chicago deal was more opportune than any New York offer had been. New York’s classical-music critics quickly began weighing in with bitter editorials and commentaries, some even explicitly stating that New York didn’t really want—nor need—Muti in any case.
But the fact remains, why Chicago, and why now?
You have to go back to August of 2003 when Deborah Card took over the management of the Chicago Symphony, following in the footsteps of current American Symphony Orchestra League President Henry Fogel, who had served as CSO general manager for nearly two decades, engineering the controversial appointment of Daniel Barenboim as the successor to the twenty-two-year reign of the legendary CSO music director Sir Georg Solti. Barenboim’s appointment had always been so tied to Fogel that when Fogel stepped down after a period of financial decline for the orchestra in the wake of the post-9/11 economic slump which had seen a steady decline in ticket sales, plus a loss of the orchestra’s recording contract and its weekly syndicated radio broadcasts, the writing was on the wall that Barenboim would not be willing to stay in Chicago without the man who had so protected and defended him during what had been, even at its best, a divisive music directorship.
Even so, Card insists that she came to the CSO with the full expectation of working with Barenboim and says that she never gave a thought to being put in the position of having to find a new CSO music director.
“I knew that his contract would soon be up,” Card recalls, “and we needed to take a pulse as to what [Barenboim’s] intentions were. He had been here for seventeen years and had brought in so many players that there was a tremendous legacy there, something I appreciate more and more the longer I am here. There was great regard for his musicianship and eagerness for him to expand his time in Chicago rather than simply fly in and fly out, and we wanted to refresh the relationship. It was at that point that [Barenboim] indicated that he wanted to focus on other things.”
Though widely presented in media at the time that the real reason behind Barenboim’s departure was that he had been asked to become involved in fundraising and that he only wanted to make music, Card dismisses such a characterization as an “easy sound-bite.” “We wanted to make it work,” says Card, “but it was clear as [Barenboim] kept refusing offers for small extensions of his contract so that we could work together to find a solution that he really did want to leave, and that nothing that we could have done was going to change that.”
The players themselves were divided enough on the issue that Barenboim’s supporters encouraged a secret vote with the idea that if there was resounding orchestra agreement that Barenboim should stay, this would send a message to management that things should remain as they had been for the previous Barenboim years. The vote itself was, as several Barenboim supporters characterized it at the time, “indecisive,” i.e., against Barenboim.
Placed in the position of having to convene a search committee for a new music director, Card says that “from the beginning in discussions with [then CSO Board Chair] Bill Strong that the [new music director] would be very engaged with the musicians and have an understanding of what is important to an institution. At no point, believe it or not, was there a piece of paper with all of the job specifications. We knew it had to be someone who had a very special relationship with the orchestra and who would put Chicago at the top of the list of whatever else they were doing.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the search was that Card insisted that there be “no timeline” to find “the right person” and that, as she ambiguously put it at the time about how this would be specifically determined or known, “we’ll know it when we have it.”
Longtime principal guest conductor and French composer Pierre Boulez—a close friend of Barenboim who had kept coming back to Chicago largely as a favor to that friendship—had already indicated that his tenure in that position would end when Barenboim left, but was persuaded to stay on as “conductor emeritus” until a new music director was hired. Though Card felt Boulez out about taking the music directorship, she now admits that Boulez made it very clear upfront that he had no interest in accepting a CSO music directorship, attempting to devote his advancing years as much to composition as to an already overcrowded conducting schedule.
“Of course, everyone was a potential candidate,” says Card, “but we went back and looked for conductors who had been here before but had not been back in a while.” Among such A-list names that surfaced were Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who had only conducted the CSO on two previous occasions, in 1976 and again twenty years later in 1996, and Riccardo Muti, who had conducted the CSO as a young conductor at the Ravinia Festival in 1973 and again downtown in 1975 but had not been back since. Both were engaged as guest conductors in 2006, but Muti cancelled before his concerts, though little else was said at the time. “He ate some bad fish,” Card now admits, “and became too ill to conduct.” Haitink did conduct his scheduled concerts, though, and like Boulez, Card admits she “felt him out” about becoming music director but also like Boulez, Haitink made clear that he would not be interested. Sensing that Haitink did want greater involvement with the CSO, however, Card was able to persuade him to become “principal conductor” and split administrative CSO duties with Boulez, even though Card admits that the two have never been in Chicago at the same time and had not even met when this unconventional and controversial arrangement was made.
Back at La Scala, where Muti had been music director for nineteen years, the musicians and staff voted overwhelmingly against Muti in a motion of no-confidence in March of 2005 for Muti having engineered the ouster of a general manager who Muti had feuded with constantly for what Muti described as “dumbing down” the legendary opera house, in favor of one of Muti’s own choosing. Work stoppages followed and the end result was Muti stepping down, citing “vulgar hostility” from his own orchestra. The volatile episode reportedly left Muti so shaken and depressed that his wife told Italian media that Muti might not ever conduct again. Two months earlier, Muti had walked out on a Covent Garden production because he reportedly didn’t like the sets. The same thing had happened at Salzburg a decade earlier. Muti’s longtime reputation as an uncompromising autocrat was becoming larger than life.
In Chicago, previous management regimes might well have viewed such scenarios as a dress rehearsal for what could happen here with an orchestra as notorious for its temperament as Muti, but Card continued to carefully court Muti to come and guest conduct. Sensing that La Scala’s loss could become Chicago’s gain, Card put together a plum package for Muti that would give a conductor who had not conducted the Chicago Symphony in over thirty years—long before Muti had become a known commodity—the opening two weeks of the current 2007-2008 season followed by a two-week European tour with the CSO that would even perform in Muti’s own Italy, although carefully avoiding Milan, the city that houses La Scala.
The reviews from Chicago and European media were by and large rhapsodic valentines, few seeming to notice how bizarre and uncharacteristic the marginal repertoire was for the CSO. While some of us were wondering if our orchestra might not be selling its musical soul in a Faustian bargain for the seduction of a music director of status and reputation, others were calling for the CSO to hire Muti sooner rather than later.
Now that the deed is done, what can we expect? After all, Muti has been hired after having conducted a mere two programs here—and even those had repetitions—the musical equivalent of a one-night stand in the classical-music world. Do we really have a clue as to how this will translate into a working relationship with the Chicago Symphony, or is it entirely possible that both parties will wake up the next morning and look at one another and realize that each is now married to a total stranger? True, the stakes are high and this is a marriage of convenience for both parties if ever there was one, the CSO because it has been running rudderless since Barenboim left two years ago, and Muti, who found a new start and a much-needed boost at a time when his confidence had been badly shaken and there were sudden voids in his schedule. Admittedly, those voids could have been easily filled in by any city in any country of Muti’s choosing, including New York, which had seduced him far longer than Chicago, so in that sense, Muti’s hiring is unquestionably an enormous coup for Chicago.
But the Chicago Symphony has a century-long-plus tradition steeped in Austro-Germanic repertoire and is world-renowned for its performances of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, and is viewed as the international standard-bearer for this music. Muti, the first Italian conductor to become CSO music director, is steeped in the Italian opera tradition most associated with Verdi and is coming into a city that already has an institution in Lyric Opera that sees its primary mission as being the curator of the Italian operatic tradition. The only announced CSO program thus far for Muti, characteristically enough, is the Verdi “Requiem” for next season, and Muti has conducted precious little of the CSO’s bread- and-butter repertoire. Even Barenboim, who was a skilled Wagner and Bruckner interpreter before taking up his CSO music directorship in 1991, found himself having to extend that repertoire over into Mahler, a composer he originally detested when he came here, and into Richard Strauss. There is little indication that Muti, who at 67 years of age will be the oldest CSO music director ever to accept the post, has the inclination—to say nothing of the aptitude—for conducting this music. Ironically, in a bizarre case of musical chairs, Barenboim was brought to La Scala after Muti’s departure in an untitled position precisely to bring Wagner and Richard Strauss to that opera house because these had been explicit voids in Muti’s repertoire.
“[Muti] has the broadest repertoire of any candidate that we looked at,” counters Card, “in terms of known and unknown works. And he has regularly conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for thirty-eight years, so he is well-grounded in that tradition.”
Then there is the issue of what will become of the “Chicago sound,” a brass-heavy, darkly hued late-nineteenth-century aesthetic long proudly associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that makes the sound of the orchestra instantly identifiable even across decades of several music directorships. Muti’s one experience as the music director of an American orchestra was his highly controversial taking over of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980-1992 where he made the lush sheen of the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra string section that had been that orchestra’s trademark sound for generations (under such music directors as Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy) a thing of the past. Many applauded him, to be fair, for bringing music that the orchestra played closer to the composers’ actual intentions, but he was also widely criticized for transforming the previously distinctive Philadelphia Orchestra string sound into a generic sound much like any other orchestra.
And what about temperament? Can we expect as many potential fireworks between Muti and the CSO off the stage as on the stage?
“I have been here for five years now,” assesses Card, “and have known this orchestra to be a group of individuals who want to work hard and who have a high standard of excellence. Likewise, I know Riccardo Muti to be a person who wants to work hard and who has a high standard of excellence. We are extremely lucky, and this is an exciting new era.”