By Dennis Polkow
Even from across the hall, Riccardo Muti is beaming. He has just completed his first Chicago Symphony Orchestra rehearsal since what Muti himself has come to call “the accident,” and players and music director alike are virtually euphoric.
CSO president Deborah Rutter looks the happiest I have seen her since Muti arrived here last fall. One longtime player passing by whispers to me, “We are on cloud nine.” If things kept going the way they were before Muti, he adds, “this orchestra would have been in ruins.” Concertmaster Robert Chen walks by flashing an ear-to-ear smile.
Muti is childlike and playful enough that he even warmly greets me, a reporter, by placing his hands on my cheeks and patting them much as Neapolitans do to young children. Even returning to the rigors of doing interviews is an apparent joy to a man who has been through as much convalescing as Muti has since his February 3 collapse during a rehearsal, and the facial injuries and surgery and pacemaker implementation that resulted.
As we walk back together to Muti’s dressing room in the basement of Symphony Center, CSO artists assistant Pietro Fiumara—who as a native Italian speaker and confidant so carefully stayed by Muti’s side during his hospitalization—is cheerfully offering us cappuccinos.
Muti places his score and eyeglasses on a glass table in front of a black couch and settles back amongst the pillows there. A huge picture of him in one of the daily newspapers catches his eye and, for a moment, his look suggests that his high spirits may be diminished. He makes a face even worse than the unflattering one in the paper and wonders aloud why a newspaper would choose to run a picture of him with his mouth open so unnaturally. “Bad taste,” he says, dismissively but quietly, looking over at the photographer that has entered with me as if to challenge him to do better.
“You know,” says Muti very gently and slightly less enunciated than his normal speaking voice, “when I smile, some muscles are still very tight. One part is free, but this part,” he says, pointing to his left side, “is tight. So when I smile, it is not my natural smile, I have to force it. I cannot wait for my mouth to be normal again.”
As I look over at the score of Verdi’s “Otello,” Muti lights up again. “The rehearsal went very well,” he says. “The orchestra was very happy, very nice, we worked intensely, a wonderful atmosphere.” Muti’s arrival to begin the rehearsal reportedly drew immense applause from the orchestra, and prompted Muti to joke that next time, he would fall into a different section of the orchestra. “It is very exciting to do ‘Otello’ as this is something, as you know, that belongs to my DNA! And to work with this orchestra, and explain certain details, it is very exciting!”
Did Muti ever hear the “Otello” recording that the CSO did—exactly twenty years ago now—for Solti’s last concerts as music director? “No, I never did,” says Muti. “I was in Philadelphia then. I knew he did it, but did not know that was his farewell.” And as Muti will now do, Solti and the CSO took the piece to Carnegie Hall as well. “Twenty years, it is practically a new piece, then!”
Despite the first orchestra rehearsal going so well, Muti knows he has a lot of work ahead of him as there has already been a casualty among the singers: Nicola Alaimo, who was to have sung Iago. “Alaimo has an ear infection and he cannot fly,” says Muti, soberly. “So, [Carlo] Guelfi came and we have to work now. It’s a pity because Alaimo had done it in Salzburg and in Rome. So practically, there is a lot of work that I have to do not only because Verdi wanted the opera called ‘Iago,’ but psychologically, he is the most complex character in the opera.”
Was rehearsing with the orchestra again for the first time today since “the accident” like getting back up on a horse again after a fall? “Si, but this was very strange what happened. It was very unexpected because I was conducting, and then I found myself in the hospital with all of these tubes, and what not. My son was here during the rehearsal and apparently there was a panic in the orchestra because everybody was shocked by the way it happened, but I don’t remember it.”
By all accounts, Muti suddenly slumped over and hit the stage with a loud thump during a February 3 afternoon rehearsal of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony for the scheduled opening concert of his winter residency that evening. “I was conducting near the end of the slow movement and everything was going along, and then, I didn’t feel anything even one second before that something was happening. I didn’t feel anything. It would be a wonderful way to die, because you just—go.”
No pain? “I’m sure they gave me some morphine or something for the pain, because I went into the hospital on the third [of February], the operation here was on the seventh, but I don’t remember almost anything about those few days. Then the pacemaker was put in on the ninth. But when I woke up after the seventh, everything was blocked, my mouth was closed [wired shut]. And this went on for almost three weeks. This was horrendous to have all of this iron in your mouth.
“Not only the discomfort, but because you feel very humiliated as a human being. I couldn’t eat, of course. I had a tube attached here [pointing to where an IV would go on his arm]. In fact, when I go to a restaurant, still now, I have to eat very soft things because the muscles don’t allow me to chew,” he says, demonstrating his limited range of mouth motion. “Always when I go into a restaurant, I say to the waiter, ‘Look, I had an accident and cannot chew well, so I need to eat as either, you decide: either like an old man, or a baby, as you please,’ because it is the same thing.”
There were multiple press releases and even a press conference with Muti’s doctors at the time, but what is his own understanding of what happened to him, and why? “Since I was a young man,” Muti explains, “I have had a slow heart [rate], a slow pulse, which they always say is good. In fact, older champions in sports actually want this. But maybe when you become older, what was good becomes less good. Evidently, the blood went up slowly and at that moment did not arrive to the brain, and I collapsed.
“So, the pacemaker, as the doctor said, was put into a heart that was in superb condition, so it was not the heart [itself], it was a skip or arrhythmia that made me collapse. So, to avoid something like that happening again, they put in this pacemaker,” says Muti, pointing to exactly where the pacemaker was placed on his left side. “In fact, I saw the doctor yesterday, and they checked the pacemaker, and it has been working very little. I can’t do anything without them knowing, they know everything I do. [laughs.] Well, almost everything!
“But the pacemaker is like a guarantee because there is always the possibility that it could happen again. I am sorry to have to interrupt the concerts, but I’m glad that it happened here because sometimes we are in places where it’s better not to be in the hands of certain people, no? The doctors were fantastic, the nurses, everybody, [Northwestern] was really a great hospital.”
Muti suddenly left Chicago in the autumn after being unable to conduct the October 2 gala concert, and flew home to Milan to a subsequent diagnosis of “extreme exhaustion” by Italian doctors and cancelled the rest of his fall concerts here. Muti rested for a month on doctor’s orders, performed in Rome and returned to Chicago in February and then had his “accident” before scheduled to conduct here again for his winter residency—at least before the public—which left a lot of us wondering if these two incidents were actually separate episodes or symptoms of the same issue? The Maestro pauses reflectively before responding.
“I don’t know, but certainly, in the last two years, several times I felt very tired, suddenly. And then, in the last two years, I did many concerts where I remember in Salzburg or in Paris where I thought, ‘Why am I so suddenly tired?’ And I think that yes, I was tired because the heart was not giving enough oxygen and blood, no? And then things would go back to normal, but I couldn’t explain it.
“When I was here in the fall and did the first concert in Millennium Park, already I was not feeling well.” Muti has said that the adrenaline of that event carried him along, and he looked great. “Si, because then I recovered. Then I did the first concert, the Berlioz, and then the Mozart, but every day I felt more and more tired. So, maybe I had some fibula ion or something and did not know.
“The day that I cancelled [October 2], I did the general rehearsal in the morning, but I had a pain in my stomach right here,” pointing to the spot, “and this is the center of the universe, no? We say the heart, but it is this, here,” pointing to the upper abdomen. “When singers sing, the support is not on the heart, but here. Well, many times I don’t have any support from either place!” he says, laughing, infusing levity into a serious subject.
“I was extremely tired. I was sitting where you are now, and I couldn’t even move. So that was maybe a crisis that I had. I wanted to try [to conduct] but it was better that I did not try because then something could have happened on the stage and in front of the public. That’s not good.” They did put a chair out on the stage. “Yeah, because I wanted to try, but I would try to get up, and could not do it.
“In any case, now the problem is solved, and everything seems normal now as if I never had the problem, except for the jaw here, these muscles have to relax. I broke here, here, here, here and here,” says Muti, carefully tracing two long lines across his chin, both cheeks and even two lines across his forehead. There are the slightest traces of tiny lines when Muti draws attention to them and when you’re sitting two feet away from him, and you can see that his jaw is tighter and not moving with as much freedom, giving his “s” sound what Muti jokingly calls a Bologna lisp. You start to realize how lucky he was that he didn’t lose teeth or an eye given how numerous and widespread the injuries were, a sentiment he shares. “I am very lucky. And the doctors say that [any scarring] will go away completely and everything will be normal. And for two months, I cannot kiss,” Muti says, attempting to pucker, but the facial muscles are too constricted for him to fully complete the motion. He laughs and agrees at the thought that this is a tough lot for an Italian.
“They put a plaque here,” he says, showing how much of his formerly shattered chinbone is now another material altogether. Is it titanium, I wondered? “Maybe, I didn’t ask. It’s not gold!” Well, hopefully a sturdy enough material that if Muti were to fall again, the chin would not shatter this time. “Yes, but perhaps no one should know this because some people will threaten to take a swing at it,” he says, putting a fist to it, to immense laughter. Yes, like granite or iron chin, as we say in English of someone you cannot knock down. “I will tell them it’s iron, but fool’s iron.”
How does Muti respond to the widespread reports that he flew to Italy to conduct performances of “Nabucco” with the Opera di Roma against the orders of his Chicago doctors? “This was a misunderstanding,” he says. “The doctors said, ‘Generally, six weeks [to recover], but because you are a very conscientious patient who knows what you are doing, after three weeks you can do what you want, only because you are careful. So they knew that the patient was not crazy because if somebody is a little bit eccentric, he could ruin things by doing things too soon, so they say to take a longer period. In fact, I sent a [conducting] assistant [to Rome] a few days before I came to have a few more days to recover. They told me at the beginning, ‘Don’t go too high with [your left arm]’, so I was trying to avoid going up here,” says Muti, as he raises his left arm quite high with apparent ease. “In fact, it was very nice that after the second rehearsal, the concertmaster said to me, ‘Maestro, be careful: you moved the left hand too much.’ ”
Why does Muti think it had been widely reported that he was not listening to his doctors? “I think that certain phrases in the Italian language become too strong if you translate them into English. The doctors here realized that I was being very careful. For the Italians it was not a problem. It became more of a problem here, so something was lost in translation.”
Is Muti saying that had there been any risk to his recovery or health that he would not have flown to Rome when he did? “No. I am very careful about what I do. In fact, I was supposed to do ‘Nabucco’ on the 27th [of March] in St. Petersburg, and I didn’t do it. [Valery] Gergiev said that everything was sold out, so they couldn’t cancel. So, I sent my assistant there to conduct and everything went very well because the assistant had followed all of my rehearsals and did exactly what I had prepared and the way I would have done it.”
In the past, Muti had never used an assistant conductor. “Never,” says Muti. “This was the first, and perhaps the only time. I sent the assistant to have more days to recuperate.” Might we see more of this, of someone preparing for Muti to lighten his workload?
“No, no, no. I think that a conductor should, from the beginning, do the dirty work. Because even when you start to clean up things technically, that is the beginning of the interpretation. It’s not that you send somebody else and like a big, famous surgeon, you arrive at the last moment to [makes a stitching-up motion]. I have always considered myself a good worker. I like to work. So, that was just to save my energy and I sent the assistant just for that. But in the future, I like to start. Even when I work with young musicians such as the Cherubini Orchestra, even with children, I want to do it from the beginning.”
And yet, had Muti had an assistant in Chicago, a situation such as happened last fall where he was unable to go on at the last moment could have been avoided. Is this part of what motivated the Solti Conducting Competition that chose Sean Kubota to work with him? “Ah, yes, in this respect, he will be here. I like to have young musicians around me, but I don’t think in a negative way. I’ve done hundreds of tours with Philadelphia, Vienna, La Scala, etc., but never with an assistant. Not because I am immortal, but now yes, this young man is here, and if ‘something happens’ to me, as we say in Italy, he will be here for me.”
It was hard not to wonder if this public brush with mortality, or at least a lesson in human limitation, had changed Muti. We look up at the podium, and the public sees conductors like doctors, in an almost superhuman, very God-like way, and then to have this immense reminder of human fallibility and weakness, what affect has this had on Muti?
Muti pauses and looks out into space to consider it carefully. Pointing over to a framed photograph hanging on his dressing room wall, he says, “I became a musician because of the two men in this picture there, Toscanini and Nino Rota,” he says. “Toscanini invited Nino Rota to study composition in America, and was impressed by the talent of Nino Rota as a composer and so sent him to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Nino Rota made all of the music for the Fellini movies, etc. and was a wonderful composer. And he was the one who convinced me to study music seriously. So, Toscanini was also the teacher of my teacher.
“This picture has the image of two men connected to me: one, Rota is responsible for my falling down from the podium, because if I had been a lawyer, that would not have happened! I put this picture here because both people are connected to me. Toscanini and I come from the same school. And Rota was the one who pushed me to study music seriously.” Toscanini and Muti are also the two conductors most associated with La Scala.
“But your question is interesting because I always carry with me the young man who grew up in Puglia on the Adriatic coast. You see these two pictures?” he says, pointing across the wall to two large, framed photographs, “One is Napoli, the city where I was born, and the other is the thirteenth-century castle of Frederick Hohenstaufen, in Puglia. When I first saw this castle, I was five years old. They brought me during the night from the coast, the Adriatic, to the castle, all night long, in a horse [-drawn carriage]. And when they opened the curtain in the carriage, I saw this,” he says, pointing to the castle. “Since that moment, this [castle] has remained in my mind.
“Becoming older, I thought, one day I want to buy a little piece of land in front of the castle and I want to spend my last years sitting there and looking at the castle. I have read everything about Friedrich Hohenstaufen. He was emperor of Germany, but king of Napoli. The father was the emperor, but the mother was a Sicilian princess. So because he was very smart, he preferred to stay in the south of Italy than to stay in Germany,” he says, tongue-in-cheek.
“And so, I have a little property of stone houses very near the castle, actually, one kilometer from the castle, five hundred meters from the front window, the hall of the throne. You can see here all of my property,” he says, pointing to it on the framed picture. “It’s very poor land, but full of poetry: nothing rich. And this is the last castle that now has world heritage. And this castle was built for the mind, to put together people of science, philosophy, mathematics, not for war, not for prison, not for hunting. It is a mysterious castle.
“And now, for example, after this period in Chicago, at Easter time, I will go with my family there for a few days because it is important for me. I am telling you this story because there are two Muti: the private person that is very much connected with normal life, and this has been very important for me. And then there is the Muti that, at a certain point, was pushed to become a musician and to stay on the stage with the public.
“I prefer to sleep in my bed, but I have to sleep during the year in ten, twenty, thirty different beds around the world. I like to stay at home, and I have to travel. I like my family and I have to leave them. For me to save myself as I do all of this, I carry that part of me,” he says, pointing to the castle picture, “with me.”
“So, when I was in the hospital, it was not the conductor that found himself without power, without energy: it was the normal person that found again himself as he is now. I forgot the conductor—that is another person. And I decided that I am a normal person like everybody else. And so, to be patient, to obey the doctors, and this is something that happens to everybody.
“You know, the life of a conductor is not a normal life. Many times we do not see the change of the seasons. We are always inside and sometimes you go from winter to summer and we have not seen the spring and we don’t see the flowers coming. That’s not normal and is against human nature. So, I am trying to say, I want to die normal. I don’t want to die as the conductor that had success. I want to die like the person who saw this,” pointing to the castle. “These two pictures are the symbols of that normality.”
On the wall across from the castle and port of Naples pictures is a wall-sized photo of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the turn of the nineteenth century. “Yes, this is also important. This is the history of Chicago, when it started. It’s interesting to see that three or four are without moustache and beard, but everybody else has one.”
Chicago is starting to feel like home, Muti says. “First, I feel very close to the musicians, and the musicians to me. Then the people here are very, very nice and I like the city and the people here also very much. And now that I am in Chicago, I will not go to other American orchestras. If I have one more day free, I will give it to Chicago: it doesn’t make sense to give it to another orchestra. And we have a direct flight to Roma, in theory, nine hours I am told! I hope that the period that I will be here that we can do very good things not only for Chicago, but for the musical world.
“I did something for Italy, as you know, with the Minister of the Economy,” Muti says, referencing his headline-making performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco” with the Opera di Roma on March 12: after the thunderous applause following the Act III chorus of “Va, pensiero,” Muti turned to the audience and spoke about draconian Italian government cuts to arts funding and said that he would do an encore of the popular chorus, if the audience would join along. The piece, which has become a virtual Italian National Anthem and is known even by Italian schoolchildren, was sung by everyone in the theater standing at full attention conducted by Muti facing them, four days before the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.
“I received a lot of messages and letters from theaters, musicians, people, thanking me for what I did. You know, I don’t have a position in Italy, my position is in Chicago now, so I could have said, ‘Okay, this is your problem.’ But I think culture is very important in the world. If a nation remains culturally strong, it is good for the other nations. And also it is the principle involved.”
Muti laughs when I suggest that he might try the same strategy in Chicago to say, stop proposed NPR cuts, although nothing that could be done as an encore here could likely have the same impact of “Va, pensiero” in Italy. “This is a piece of music that has become the identity of a nation: we are this music. When you hear ‘Va, pensiero,’ this is Italy. In the theater, we had people politically oriented on the left, on the right, the center, and then people who believe in God, people that don’t, communist, non-communist, etc. At a certain point, everybody sang. That means that everybody forgot differences and everybody found himself connected with this music. And that was very moving.”
A few days later, Muti again made Italian headlines when he made another speech against Italian separatists. “I did a concert with the Opera di Roma Chorus and Orchestra in the chamber of dignitaries with all of the politicians and there were a thousand people there. This was televised and I made a long speech for culture, etc., but also for Italian unity because you know, we have some part of the north that would like to separate [from the country].
“So I said, ‘When I travel around the world and speak about Tiziano that was born in the north, or Antonello da Messina that was born in Sicily: two great painters, for the world, are two Italians, not one from the north that wants to separate and the other one from Sicily,’ and I received a big ovation from all the politicians. It’s incredible that we have Europe united and all of the countries are trying to separate inside. It’s nonsense.”
How does Muti feel about winning his first-ever Grammy Awards, two of them, for his recording of the Verdi “Requiem” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus? “Actually, because I am Neapolitan, I always think that nothing happens without a reason. I have the two Grammys and the Birgit Nilsson Prize, these were in exchange for the physical disaster.” Sort of a million dollar prize for Muti’s inconvenience? He laughs at the thought.
“This is a very good recording, but in my long career, I think there are other records that have been worth attention and I have received many nominations. For example, I think that the [complete] Scriabin symphonies done with Philadelphia, that was something like this. The Cherubini [set] had the nomination. It’s like the Oscar: it’s not necessarily the film that receives the Oscar that is the best film. In this case, I am very grateful to the orchestra, to the chorus and to the soloists because they made a very good performance. I was very happy because it was the first recording that we made together and so it was very nice.”
Certainly the process of classical music recording has changed a great deal from the days when Muti began making them: today, live recordings are the norm. “I have done hundreds of recordings, but always I prefer live recordings. I don’t like that Violetta dies at 11:30am in the morning because the red light is on and she has to die. She has to die at the right moment, when you start from the beginning, no? I am always uncomfortable with this kind of recording. Many of my last recordings are live.
“If you have a very good orchestra that is well-prepared and well-rehearsed and you do three or four performances, it’s better [to record live] rather than to wait until someone in another room tells you they’re ready. You’re ready? I’m not ready! You’re ready to do what? Push a button? It’s so non-artistic, no? And then, if this is not one-hundred-percent together, you do it again. And again. Maybe you may get something perfect and together, but no emotion that was in the other [take] that was not perfect. Some people in this country think I am very precise, but it is not true. I don’t have the idée fixe of perfection, that everything must be perfect. More and more, I prefer that music comes even if it is not perfect and together.”
Did Muti know that he was in the running for the Birgit Nilsson Prize? “No. It is a committee of six or seven that decides this, I have learned. [Clemens] Hellsberg, I heard, from the Vienna Philharmonic, Eva Wagner from Bayreuth, one English critic from the Daily Telegraph, some in America. It’s interesting that to receive this prize, the seven people must be unanimous. If one is against, you cannot win, so they all voted for me. But I didn’t know anything about it until I won.”
Some people have said that they don’t get the idea of millionaires leaving millions to other millionaires. In the case of Placido Domingo, the first recipient, he made some arrangements for the money to be set up to help struggling musicians. Does Muti feel some obligation to put that money back into music or has he given thought as to what he might do with that money? “First, I have to receive the money. Maybe I die before the 13th of October and somebody else will get it and they’ll have to find someone else! But whatever I do with it, I will do it privately, without fanfare. And that is the 13th, which can be unlucky!” It could even be a Friday the 13th. “Oh, now that would really be unlucky!” (Checking post-interview, the date is a Thursday.)
Muti will turn 70 on July 28 and ordinarily a major round birthday such as this—particularly after the health issues he has faced this year—would be a huge cause for international celebration in the classical music world with special concerts, recording projects, re-releases, et al, but not with Muti.
“I have been celebrating [my birthday] for the last forty years in the same way, in Salzburg, working. This year I will be doing ‘Macbeth’ with Peter Stein, then two Verdi ‘Requiem’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, and then two concerts with the Chicago Symphony at the beginning of our European tour.” In other words, Muti will be conducting business as usual.
“I have never understood this idea that you go around the world celebrating your fourth anniversary of this, the fifth anniversary of that, sixth, seventh, etc. That is something that I never did and that I will never do. Why every ten years do you have to become unhappy to have people become aware of how decrepit you are becoming? There are certain things that belong to your private life.”
Riccardo Muti conducts Verdi’s “Otello” April 7, 9 and 12 at 7pm, and Cherubini, Liszt and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony April 8 at 1:30pm at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000.
Play the video below to see Muti’s “Va pensiero”
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