By Dennis Polkow
“Are there conductors out there?” asks Riccardo Muti, before starting a Civic Orchestra rehearsal Monday afternoon in front of some visiting music students. No response. “Who is studying conducting?” A handful timidly raise their hands. “Where are you studying? Who is your teacher? Do you study from books or in front of an orchestra?” “Bene,” says Muti, to the responses. “You know, the traditional Italian method is to have conductors study composition for ten years and you do not conduct until the last three, until you have mastered counterpoint, orchestration, etcetera,” says Muti, with a hard c so it sounds like “et-chetera.” “Today we are a visual society and people think conducting is waving your arms. The truth is, you actually have more control with less gestures. Do my young colleagues agree?”
“Come to me,” Muti adds, with a lower voice and deliberateness, intently staring at each of them. “If you have any problem, come to me. I am not sure I will give you the best advice, but, I am here for you.”
Working with the orchestra on the Brahms Second Symphony, Muti is particularly attentive to the second movement. “You know, the more simple the music, the more we have to supply the expression,” he says. “Adagio: what does that mean?” “Slow,” answers a female string player. “Ah, but these Italian words have hidden meanings: ‘ad,’ and ‘agio’ means to ‘slow down at your comfort.’ It could be ‘quasi,’ like ‘a little bit.’
If your boyfriend is a bit too, ah, brilliant, tell him ‘ad agio.’ ” The tension the orchestra is feeling is broken with some audible laughter.
“Too cold,” Muti later scolds while the orchestra is playing a passage. “Think of every note as if it is the end of the universe. You know, in every orchestra, there are always a couple of players who strike with their bows like Zorro,” he says, demonstrating a fencing gesture. “They make it hard when you are doing recordings. Are you tired?” he asks one of the players looking away. “Are you tired, of me?” he says with a disarming smile. “Should we skip tonight’s [rehearsal for the public] and all have a pizzeria Italiano?”
This is Muti’s idea of a day off, having a three-hour rehearsal in the afternoon and another three-hour rehearsal in the evening, designed to inspire young musicians. The Civic Orchestra that began and the Civic Orchestra that emerged were vastly different orchestras. The public that attended the evening rehearsal was no less transformed, having the mysterious art of conducting explained to them by one of its greatest living practitioners.
“You know,” Muti says to Monday evening’s packed house, “when it comes to exposition repeats,” referring to the opening section of sonata form that unfolds a work, “this is part of the form: why cut them? To make a shorter program? In opera, too, cuts happen all the time. Would you go to a museum and be satisfied to only see three-quarter’s of a painting? It’s a fraud in music because you pay the entire ticket price, you should hear the entire piece!”
On Sunday afternoon, also a day off, Muti went to a concert rather than give a concert, at a juvenile detention center on the West Side where he had performed last fall. The residents had not forgotten, and Muti inspired them enough for some of them to want to put on a concert with the help of several Chicago Symphony musicians.
In addition to instrumental interludes based on themes from compositions of some of the residents, there were original pieces played and sung that were mostly rap and pop-oriented that spoke of hopes and dreams beyond prison walls. Muti sat and listened attentively along with relatives of the performers and staff from the CSO and the Music in Prisons organization, which had been working with the residents all week long on the program.
After a standing ovation at the conclusion, Muti went up and congratulated the performers and thanked them for a “wonderful afternoon” noting that “last time, I came and performed, but this time, you made the show! I am impressed with your dedication and commitment to music, through which we find harmony and understanding. Music brings us together. How wonderful for you and for us. I wish you all the best and if you continue in this way, some of you may become a star. One way or another, we will meet again in the future, but not here.”
Earlier last week, before presenting an idiosyncratic but moving account of Bach’s Mass in b minor for the first week of his spring residency, Muti held a press conference that was supposed to have happened back in January before he became ill and canceled his winter residency and involvement in the CSO’s Asian tour. “Are you surprised to see me?” he said, so thoroughly charming everyone and making such a joke of his misfortune that little actual information about what had happened was ever shared.
“I feel fine,” Muti had said over dinner at an Italian restaurant the weekend he had arrived back. “The part that they removed from me is not important. I have been sick before, but much was made of this. I don’t know why.” Could it be that Muti had been sick his first season here as well? In both cases, he missed his winter residencies, one out of the four trips a year that he makes to conduct in Chicago. Even with that record, Muti is actually conducting more than his predecessor Sir Georg Solti who, although he canceled infrequently, only came to Chicago three times a year and for shorter periods of time.
“Both times I had a problem,” says Muti, “and we dealt with it, and here I am.” Some have suggested that Muti only gets sick in Chicago. “When this [hernia] problem started, I was sick in Vienna and had to cancel there.” Still,Chicago twice? Coincidence? “Si, si, coincidence.” Can Muti understand how disappointed concertgoers are when he pulls out? “I am human,” he says. “Although it is nice that I am missed when I am not here.”
Meanwhile, back in his native Italy, Muti’s performances with the Opera di Roma have been so transforming the cultural life of that city that there have been calls for Muti to become president, or at least senator for life, as Verdi had done. Muti has taken these calls as little more than frustrations with current Italian politics. He has also been very critical of La Scala, the opera house he ran for nineteen years where his CSO predecessor Daniel Barenboim is now music director, for setting aside Verdi for Wagner during their mutual bicentennial years, which Muti calls “an accident of genes.” “It is a betrayal to our own culture.”
Could Muti understand those who might say the same thing about his trading in Wagner for Verdi at the Chicago Symphony, an orchestra with a long tradition of Wagner performances that is only presenting one act of a Wagner opera for his bicentennial while Verdi is getting a whole host of concerts for his? “Even that is too much,” Muti says jokingly. “One act of Wagner is as long as one Verdi opera!
“We know the Chicago Symphony can play Wagner,” he says more seriously, “but this orchestra needs to play more Verdi. To be honest, what we are doing next season has little to do with any anniversary. I would be doing ‘Macbeth’ next year whether there was an anniversary or not because Verdi teaches this orchestra to play cantabile, to sing, which it needs to do.
“Verdi is much more difficult to conduct than Wagner because with Wagner, you have this whole huge orchestra in front of you with the voices on top of it like icing on the cake. With Wagner, you could skip entire half hours, and you won’t miss anything. With Verdi, everything is more compact and direct. For all of Wagner’s ideas about music and drama, the unity of text and music is tighter in Verdi as every word will have a specific color.
“Verdi speaks to hearts. There are no supermen, no gods, just human beings, with all of their defects and sins without judging anything. Mozart does the same. Beethoven judged. He thought that [Mozart’s] ‘Così fan tutte’ [“Women are like that”] was a ‘trivial’ subject, he was so serious. Margaret Thatcher thought the same way. She asked me at a dinner how I had the ‘audacity’ to conduct ‘Così fan tutte’ because men act the same as woman. That is the conclusion that Mozart gives us, if we are paying attention.”
Riccardo Muti conducts Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in A Major, the Mozart “Prague” Symphony No. 38 and the Beethoven Fourth Symphony at 8pm April 18, 1:30pm April 19 and 7:30pm April 23 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000.