The excitement—not only throughout the city, but across the world—is palpable: Riccardo Muti, the maestro of the moment, is coming to Chicago, this time in earnest and for good. The long limbo that began when Daniel Barenboim abruptly left his position as longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director in May of 2006 is ending, at long last. Leninesque banners of Muti dot the city proclaiming “Festa Muti,” fall arts previews all spotlight his inaugural appearances, music critics are traversing continents to cover his concerts in various languages.
Muti is scheduled to arrive in Chicago September 15—well after press time—but the curiosity as to what the man himself is feeling as what is already being dubbed “the Muti era” actually begins here prompts us to reach out to the maestro by phone in his suburban Salzburg villa to find out. The rest of us may be excited, but Muti, as we have seen here now on numerous press announcements and conversations, can be as funny and mischievous as a schoolboy, having one Italian paper report on the constant one-liners of his last press conference here under the headline, “Un clown nommé Riccardo Muti.” Perhaps it is the mountain air—“It has been cloudy and rainy here for forty days”—but today, however, Muti is initially introspective and somber as he discusses what he calls “his last adventure” as music director.
“Life, even for conductors, stops at a certain time,” says Muti, who turned 69 in July, making him the oldest incoming music director that the Chicago Symphony has had in its nearly 120-year history. “So, I take this adventure as a wonderful experience at the point of my life where I am at my most ‘mature,’ at least as far as age is concerned. As you know, I have been a music director for so many, many years, first in Florence, then in London, Philadelphia, and then in La Scala. And you also know that after so many decades of having music directorships, I wanted to be free and to remain free and just make music.
“But after I met the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—the players, the city, the people—I fell in love. Falling in love is something you do not expect at this stage of your life and which you cannot plan. I don’t come to Chicago to make a ‘career,’ because the career has already been made. And the Chicago Symphony also has a long and distinguished ‘career,’ if you will. So, this is a meeting of a conductor and an orchestra, neither of whom have to ‘prove’ anything.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but everybody in the classical world knows how I approach making music or operas, and the orchestra is one of the greatest in the world, so if everything goes right, together we can really serve the city and do something good for Chicago and perhaps for the world, through music. Sometimes it will be good, sometimes it may be less good, because an interpreter cannot always be good all the time. But I will try my best to serve people through music and make people better. If, at this point in my life I can do something like this, then I will be happy to have served the city of Chicago.”
Such talk of autumnal romance betrays the fact that when you meet Muti in person, he has an almost thermonuclear aura about him and is so contagiously energetic that he could easily pass for someone decades younger. Depending on his mood, a more youthful and playful side can show itself, such as when he compared conducting the Chicago Symphony to driving a Ferrari to an Italian newspaper.
“Well, if in a technological world we compare an orchestra to a machine,” says Muti, starting to laugh at the analogy himself, “which is not quite the case because an orchestra is made up of human beings, the Chicago Symphony is able to go ‘fast’ and has a wonderful engine like a Ferrari, but it is also comfortable, like a Rolls Royce or a Mercedes. And when you need it to be, it can sometimes even be safe, like a Fiat.”
Born in Naples, Italy on July 28, 1941, Muti’s father was a physician and his mother was a professional singer. Young Riccardo was going to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor himself, but his extraordinary talent for music exhibited itself at a very young age and he studied piano in his hometown at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella under Vincenzo Vitale. After studying medicine for a time, music beckoned and Muti was subsequently awarded a diploma in Composition and Conducting by the Conservatory “Giuseppe Verdi” in Milan where he studied with composer Bruno Bettinelli and conductor Antonino Votto, one of the first to recognize that Muti’s talent and leadership abilities would make him an ideal conductor.
Composer and conductor Nino Rota—best remembered today for scoring the classic Fellini films and “The Godfather” movies, among others—who was a conducting assistant to Arturo Toscanini during his years at La Scala, which Muti himself would later oversee, and a onetime student of Fritz Reiner, who would later become music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953-1963, is the man that Muti constantly refers to as “my mentor,” and has long championed his music.
Unanimously awarded first place by the jury of the “Guido Cantelli” competition for conductors in Milan in 1967, that success led to Muti’s appointment the following year as the music director of the opera festival Maggio Musicale in Florence, a position he kept until 1980, while also succeeding Otto Klemperer as music director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in 1974, a position Muti held until 1982. In 1980, Muti succeeded Eugene Ormandy as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he remained until 1992. From 1986 to 2005, Muti was the music director at La Scala in Milan and remained a free agent after leaving until accepting the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 2008, with a five-year contract beginning September 2010.
True to form as would befit an elegant Italian maestro, Muti is earthy and passionate, whether he is talking about music or life, and loves pasta, fine wine, fast cars, Armani suits and Neapolitan pizza. “Chicago pizza is forty times thicker than what we in Naples, who invented the dish, would call pizza,” he said last October. “Thirty years ago in Germany I found that it was very easy to make music there, but you couldn’t eat there: there was no olive oil in the entire country.” Muti has thus far shown far more charm and humility than temper and arrogance here, referencing females of any variety as “beautiful ladies” and responding to even the most challenging and personal questions with humor, grace and candor.
For one who travels as much as Muti does, he describes himself as a “family man” and makes frequent references to his wife Cristina, who founded and directs the Ravenna Festival back in Italy, and to his daughter Chiara, who is an actress; he also has two sons and is now a grandfather and spoke tenderly last February of the effect that transplanting to Chicago for so many weeks a year will have on him: “The sacrifice to leave my country, to leave my family takes a toll, because I am basically a homesick man. Now, I have a beautiful grandson—his name is Riccardo Muti—and I did not know that to become a grandfather is even more beautiful than to be a father. So, I have to spend much less time with my family, but I am happy that I will spend it with this new beautiful family here in Chicago. Actually, I cannot wait to bring little Riccardo to Chicago.”
Muti first encountered the Chicago Symphony Orchestra back in 1973 when he conducted it at the Ravinia Festival, and then again in 1975, downtown. He did not return for more than thirty years, in 2007, and spoke last spring about his encountering a “different orchestra” in 2007 than he had in 1973. Looking back on that statement a few months later, he now adds that “the fact is that from 1973 to 2007, I was also a different person. I do not believe that we only change across time, we become different persons. When I say, ‘When I was twenty years old, I felt a different way,’ I felt a different way because we not only change, we change radically. The body changes, too. The bones are the same, the veins are the same, but the mind changes: the feelings, all of the things that we have experienced in life, the good things, the sad things.
“Across thirty years, you lose friends, you lose relatives, you lose parents and you have children, new friends and new experiences, so you become a different person. It is the same with an orchestra. In thirty years, musicians go, musicians die, new musicians come in, young musicians become mature, so the orchestra changes. It is a law of nature that the same people become different. In the meantime, the orchestra was in the hands of—at that time, in 1973, I think was Solti already. And Solti was there for many years and then Barenboim was there for many years, too. So, practically speaking, the orchestra was in the hands of conductors who spent many years here, and they changed, too. It is natural that when I arrived, the entire situation was completely different. And also the city had changed. I remember that in 1973, Chicago was a beautiful city but not as beautiful as it is today with new fantastic buildings, Millennium Park, which is so incredibly beautiful. Life has changed since 1973 and everything has become faster, unfortunately. We consume things with much more speed.”
In 1973, Muti remembers encountering “a very strong and powerful orchestra. In 2007, I found an orchestra of very high quality but more supple, subtle, more flexible. Now, I don’t know if it was more flexible because I also had more experience, thirty years more, in fact. I found the same power in 2007 as before, but more subtle.” Although Muti says that he has never heard the CSO live apart from conducting it, he did know two of its music directors, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, and is a “fan” of its Fritz Reiner recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s, pioneering stereo recordings that for many, remain the artistic and sonic standard by which other orchestral recordings are measured. “The orchestra was astonishing, it was a fantastic orchestra at that time. That was a miracle at the time of Fritz Reiner. Certainly Solti and Barenboim added to this, and their contribution was to give this orchestra a more international profile, because at the time of Reiner, the orchestra did not travel. The quality is amazing. The balance, the quality of the players, amazing.
“I met Sir Georg several times, once in Europe at his summer villa in Tuscany with my wife and his wife. He spoke quite good Italian. We spoke about musicians and the direction that the world was taking. My teacher, Nino Rota, was personal assistant to Toscanini in his golden years at La Scala, and Solti had been Toscanini’s assistant in Salzburg, so we had that immediate connection and familiarity. He was a brilliant person, full of humor. We had many similar ideas about music. And of course, I was a huge admirer of his music making: everybody knows Solti Wagner is wonderful, but I also particularly admired his Verdi, which is the highest compliment I could give him, since as an Italian, this is ‘our territory.’ Then I didn’t see him for many years, until he came to Salzburg.
“Barenboim, I knew from the days when I was music director of the Philharmonia in the seventies. I knew him and his wife [late cellist Jacqueline du Pré] before she got ill. At that time, Barenboim was more famous as a pianist than a conductor, even though he was already conducting. We had mutual friends. Then I saw him at La Scala with the Orchestre de Paris when he was music director in Paris, and on a few other occasions since. We have sometimes met in Vienna or Salzburg, we had lunch at my house and we talked about projects. He went to Berlin, I was in La Scala and we respected each other. I also respect his contribution to this institution. You do not need to work on an orchestra that does not need work.”
Is Muti paying Barenboim a compliment as an orchestra builder? “Yes, definitely yes. Both Solti and Barenboim. Only a bad musician would take away from an orchestra. Every conductor who is a good musician adds something. When I say I pay a compliment, a tribute to Barenboim, this is not a criticism of Solti. Both conductors were important. But even back to Fritz Reiner, this is a really fantastic orchestra.” Power is the principal attribute we associate with Solti, I suggest, though some of us did hear a bit more refinement under Barenboim, especially with the strings. “Si, si, si, I agree. His was a more middle European approach.” Prior to that, this orchestra was always singled out for its brass section. “When I was in Europe or even when I was music director in Philadelphia, we always heard—I was not familiar myself—about the brass of the Chicago Symphony. It was a compliment to the brass section, but it was not a compliment for the rest of the orchestra, that everybody was talking about the brass. Today we can say that we can speak very highly of the brass, of the woodwinds, of the strings: the entire orchestra. The orchestra has a wonderful woodwind section and a wonderful string section as well.”
Does Muti think that the CSO has a musical “sound” that is unique? Long pause, followed by a sigh, since this has been an issue that has dogged Muti from the days when he was accused by some of homogenizing the famous lush Philadelphia Orchestra string sound when he was music director there from 1980-1992. “Every orchestra has its own sound. Great orchestras, good orchestras, the sound that is made by the musicians that make up the orchestra is unique. With the Vienna Philharmonic, there is a distinct sound that you can recognize most of the time, in the hands of a good conductor that knows the tradition of the Viennese sound. So, if you hear the orchestra without knowing it is the Vienna Philharmonic, a good musician should be able to recognize the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Berlin Philharmonic has a very different sound than the Vienna Philharmonic, since the time of Karajan, and even from the time of Furtwängler.
“In America, the Philadelphia Orchestra, which I know very well from my many years there, versus the Chicago Symphony, two orchestras that both have two distinct sounds. I would say that the Philadelphia Orchestra has a unique string sound since the time of Stokowski, a sort of ‘perfume’ to the sound that can be full of a thousand colors. Stokowski was very good, especially with the French repertoire where the music was imbued with many, many colors. Chicago has less ‘perfume,’ in this way, and is more solid and supple. I love both orchestras so I want to convey my concept in the best English that I can: Chicago is a stronger orchestra in solidity, like a rock, no? But a rock that can also be very gentle. Philadelphia is a very strong orchestra, but more inclined to perfumes.”
When Solti had conducted Vienna, Berlin and Chicago within a very short span of time years ago, I asked him to characterize the differences. One thing he said about Chicago as opposed to Vienna or Berlin was he felt that, at least in his case, that Chicago most perfectly molded his intentions. When he went to Vienna, it was their sound. Yes, he could mold it, but it was the Vienna sound.
“It is clear what you are saying,” agrees Muti. “I think that Solti molded the sound of Chicago because it was his orchestra. He also conducted the orchestra for many, many years. When you go to an orchestra for one week, you cannot completely change the sound of the orchestra as a guest conductor for one week. With the Vienna Philharmonic, you have the Vienna tradition concerning certain instruments such as the oboe. The Viennese oboe has a completely different sound than any oboe in the world. The Viennese horn has a different sound than the standard French horn. The way that the Vienna strings use the bow, the vibrato that they have even when they play staccato, is a unique sound that depends on the way that they use the instrument. But the Vienna Philharmonic today when they play for me, for example, they get a sound—and I am so close to those musicians, because I have been conducting them for forty consecutive years, a record that no other conductor has—immediately, I am able to get the musicians to create the sound that I want. In the hands of other conductors, the orchestra can sound different. For example, if you have conductors that are inclined to the Baroque style, they have a more modern concept and sound that is much harder, more harsh. The Vienna Philharmonic can accommodate their sound in a different way.”
Even in Chicago, I mention, when we would have legendary former Philadelphia music directors such as Stokowski or Ormandy conduct here, we would get what Muti characterizes as “perfume” in the strings, even here in Chicago with the CSO. “Si, si. If a conductor has the charisma and the technique and the authority to convey—authority is not the right word—if he is able to convince the players that at that moment, that is the right way, that can happen.”
The quality of leadership in a conductor is everything for Muti, and it is something that he takes so seriously that, in 2005, he stepped down from La Scala, where he had been music director for nineteen years, after the musicians and staff voted overwhelmingly against him in a motion of no-confidence for Muti having engineered the replacement of a general manager that Muti had feuded with constantly for what he described at the time as a “dumbing down” of the legendary opera house, to 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 at the time 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, something I asked him about at his first press conference here in June 2008, a month after the announcement that he would become the CSO’s tenth music director in September 2010.
Should we in Chicago be concerned, I asked, given Muti’s reputed temperament and the La Scala fiasco, that Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—which is also notorious for chasing music directors it does not like out of town, and which Muti had only conducted for two programs in three decades at that point—were two distinct and difficult entities on an inevitable collision course?
Muti’s lengthy answer was illuminating and because he has largely refused to talk about this episode publicly since, it is included here in its virtual entirety.
“For me, La Scala represents nineteen years of wonderful music making, and a wonderful relationship with our entire orchestra and chorus. I still have many members of the orchestra and the chorus that come to see me and talk to me. Just a few days ago [late May of 2008] I was in Paris, and I did a concert with Orchestre National de France and the chorus, and I asked the chorus master of La Scala to come and to help me and he was very happy to collaborate with me, as he has in the past.
“Nineteen years has been the longest period [of a music director there], even longer than the Toscanini period in La Scala. To speak about the way that it ended, it is, as I have said in other interviews, impossible to explain, because you have to understand some aspects of the Italian attitude. And I am also Italian, as you know.
“I didn’t leave La Scala with anger or hate. It was a solution that nobody expected and so it was one of these things that cannot be explained because you cannot explain why suddenly one hundred ushers vote against the music director: one hundred ushers. I understand that ushers can be very musical, but that tells you everything. I don’t want to go into details because I will miss my rehearsal in Vienna in two days.
“But to assure you about my attitude as a music director, I must say that I was a music director in Florence, in London, in Philadelphia, and the musicians of these organizations all love me and respect me very much, and they have a great memory of my tenure with them. And I have a very long relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, since 1971, and the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the most difficult orchestras in the world. There is still a love affair between us that continues and grows every year.
“Sometimes, when a music director becomes very strong in demanding quality, it can happen that mediocre people don’t want to accept quality, and so starts a process that you cannot control. So, I think that the episode of La Scala which represents nineteen years of work, nineteen wonderful years—and the documents are there, all of the tours, all of the achievements—I found an orchestra that was not in very good condition and I left an orchestra in very good condition. This is what a music director is expected to do.
“Here, I don’t have the problem to bring the quality up because this is one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I will put my soul and my ideas into the orchestra and I will also take away some ideas from the musicians because as I have always said, what I have learned in my life as a musician, I learned from the great soloists and the great orchestras around the world. So, the situation is completely different [in Chicago than at La Scala].
“About my character, there are people that believe that I am an angel, there are people that believe the contrary. But also in the beginning, devils were angels, no? So, when you deal with quality and understanding and with goals that are not personal goals, then you work hard. And to work hard is something that everybody here wants to do. When you have a great orchestra of musicians, they are the first to expect a music director to work hard, not just to take it easy. To take it easy is sometimes an attitude that is very common in some parts of the world. And certainly it is not the reason I am here. I believe that a conductor, a music director, should be a leader, or a father, or an older brother, but not a dictator. But a conductor that only wants to make friends of everybody and only to please and to be loved, that is not part of my personality.
“I was very happy to work with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because the standard was very high. I remember when I did the Prokofiev Symphony No. 3 [in September of 2007], I remember that there is one passage in the second movement where the violins go up in unison. I have done this symphony many times and have recorded it and have done it around the world with the great orchestras. All the time, every time we hit that passage, I had to stop and work to put together the intonation, the ensemble, etc.
“So, I was conducting my first rehearsal here and was waiting [making a conducting motion and smiling]—ha, ha, ha—now the passage comes—ha, ha, ha—now we will see, and it was like a miracle: the passage was perfect and clean from the beginning to the end. Then I did it again just to see if it was an accident. And it was perfect again. Every time we played it on tour, it was perfect. That says everything. You don’t need to be strong [with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra], because they give you everything. So, you just have to respond in the same way.”
The La Scala experience has clearly left Muti cautious, however, though if the best revenge is to live well, as the old saying goes, Muti is doing exactly that. In addition to taking the Chicago job, I ask him about his announced position as music director of Opera di Roma—widely perceived to be a devastating blow to La Scala, which is still floundering without a music director since Muti’s bitter departure five years ago—Muti surprisingly interrupts to say, “I want to be clear, I have not signed the contract yet. I will conduct in Rome as I promised, Rossini’s ‘Moise’ in December and in February and March, ‘Nabucco.’ Of course, everybody in Rome is hoping that I go there, and that I sign the contract, and in the last month, they have been very quick to say, ‘He is coming, he is coming.’ It is more the desire of the press than the reality. The situation in Italy is very difficult and very complicated, so I don’t think that the moment is right for me to take the risk at the moment to run the institution. I promised to do two operas in concert, but not with the title of music director.”
It had also been reported that Muti preferred the title of principal conductor to music director in Rome, but his response is, “No, no, no, I didn’t even know about this: someone’s imagination. Two operas are what I have promised, but without any title of any kind.” Is the report that Muti said that he would not return to the Metropolitan Opera after making his long-awaited debut there earlier this year also an exaggeration? “That was another lie. My experience at the Met was fantastic, with the chorus, with the orchestra. At the end of the first night of ‘Attila,’ they gave me a beautiful gift: the orchestra wrote on a poster and also gave me a beautiful handmade gift, so the Met was wonderful. What I said was that I am so busy with all of my commitments that I don’t know when I can come back. In fact, I am in discussion with the Met for a new production that would take place not before 2015, because it is impossible for me, you understand? But my experience at the Met was one-hundred-percent positive. I didn’t enjoy the production, but I enjoyed very much working with [Donald] Palumbo, the chorus master who was in Chicago [at Lyric Opera]. Wonderful. As you know, sometimes words are misunderstood. And they said I would never go back, but I meant, I don’t know when I could come back. There is a representative of the Met here in Salzburg and we spoke of a concrete possibility to come back to the Met in 2015.”
Speaking of Donald Palumbo’s memorable years at Lyric Opera, is there any chance that we might see Muti conducting at Lyric Opera now that he will be in Chicago? “That would be difficult, because it means more time, and if I have one more week free, I will give it to the Chicago Symphony. To do an opera, you need at least one month and a half, and I do not have that. When I am not in Chicago, I have other commitments in New York, Vienna and taking care of my European part.” How about a return to Ravinia, where Muti made his CSO debut back in 1973? “That would also be difficult because I conduct in Salzburg [during the summer], but we will see.”
From the moment that Muti accepted the position of Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director, he spoke of using music as a tool to build bridges and to bring music to people who either for economic or cultural reasons, do not go to orchestra concerts. To that end, Muti is making sure that before a month of concerts inside at Symphony Center that his first official concert as music director—which takes place at 5:30pm this Sunday afternoon, September 19 in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion as the climax of an afternoon of concerts by area young musicians and ensembles starting at 2pm—will be an unticketed outdoor concert “for the people of Chicago” that is free and open to everybody.
“The program is Verdi [“La forza del destino” Overture], Liszt [“Les preludes”], Respighi [“Pines of Rome”] and Tchaikovsky [“Romeo and Juliet”]. This is a program that requires a lot of difficulty for the musicians, but the program is designed for what will hopefully be thousands of people to come and enjoy while we play a kind of music that reaches the hearts and the souls of people immediately with immediate communication from me and the orchestra to the public. For me, it would have been too complicated to have a program like the Hindemith E-flat Symphony or the [Beethoven] ‘Eroica’ for my first meeting with thousands of the public in Chicago. It is not a program of ‘show’ pieces, but a program of music that goes to the hearts of people immediately.”
Could Muti see this become an annual tradition, as say, every fall when Lyric Opera does a free outdoor concert in the park before the season officially begins? “It is important that in my first concert, that I have this new and unique experience. First, I have to see these people, to see how they react, how they welcome me, how they accept my messages. I cannot establish everything in the beginning: it is sort of a work in progress, no? I know what my goals are, but now is the moment I am starting to meet these goals and to begin these new experiences in Chicago and then to go ahead, considering my first experience as a milestone.”
The month-long Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Festa Muti” takes place from September 19-October 17, kicking off at 5:30pm with a free concert in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, (312)294-3000.
Author: Dennis Polkow
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org