Walking out onto the stage last September, Riccardo Muti was receiving his first applause at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in over nineteen months. The celebrated Italian-born music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who had turned eighty two months earlier, was clearly moved and stood motionless for a moment. What made the acclamation unusual was that, save for a handful of invited media, the hall was empty. The orchestra itself was providing heartfelt and sustained applause, greeting Muti at a morning rehearsal.
Wearing a black mask and informally attired in a black zipper sweater and slacks with blue-and-white sneakers, Muti raised a hand to hold the applause while ascending the podium. The ovation tapered off.
“Ciao,” said Muti tersely, removing his mask while facing and addressing the orchestra. “I heard that the news is out already and I am upset about this.”
The news referred to was the announcement that Muti had agreed to extend his contract as music director of the CSO an extra year, through the 2022-23 season. A press release had been issued but the information was embargoed until early that afternoon, a half-hour after the rehearsal was scheduled to end.
“You should be the first to know this decision has been made,” said Muti. “And then the press. You are first. The musicians should be the first to know.
“Why have I accepted to stay with you one more year? Because, I love you.” Roaring applause again ensued, but this time was uninterrupted. “There are no other words,” Muti said as it died down. “These have been, for me, a wonderful twelve years. During the last part of my life, beautiful music and molto passione. So, that is the reason when I was asked to stay a little longer that I said, ‘Of course, yes. It will be, for me, a great, great pleasure.’
“I am becoming more and more nostalgic. I’m going back, back, back to when I was a child. That is a sign that the circle is completing, coming to its end. The fact that I stay with you to make music will complete the arc. So I have to thank you and applaud you for accepting this.
“You are the last orchestra and the most important orchestra where I have been music director,” said Muti, whose decades-long career included previous music directorships at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Philadelphia Orchestra and nineteen years at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. “Your memory will accompany me in my heart to the end of my life. You, Chicago, are the Symphony of my heart. Grazie.” And again, thunderous applause.
As the acclamation wound down and musicians—about half masked across the sections—began to run through bits of music about to be rehearsed, an unmasked Muti turned and looked out into the mostly empty hall, acknowledging the handful of scattered local and national media present. “Ciao!”
Later that evening, as a black-masked, tuxedo-clad Muti took the same walk across the stage to a hall now filled with masked patrons to begin the 2021-22 season, the ovation reached an intensity normally reserved for a rockstar. It was interrupted by Muti signaling the start of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and facing the audience to conduct it as it sang along. Even a familiar ritual such as this became immensely moving after so many months of music director and orchestra having been apart.
“Tonight is a very special occasion,” Muti said to the audience after removing his mask. “After twenty months of separation, we are reunited. Twenty months of disaster in the world that killed many people. That killed the economy. That killed culture. But the economy affects the physical part of our life. Culture affects our soul, our mind and the interrelationships between people. We always forget how much the lack of culture can damage a society. That’s the reason why it’s very special tonight. And that’s the reason why we are playing the ‘Eroica.’ Because the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and the musicians around the world and the actors and the singers and the composers and the painters, they have been heroic. Not only did they have to make their profession silent, but they couldn’t communicate the real reason for their life: to give to you, the public, enrichment and beauty.
“The world is moving in a very tragic way because of a lack of culture. Culture is not ‘entertainment.’ You are not here tonight because you didn’t know how to spend your evening! You are here tonight because you need music. You need to hear your fantastic musicians live. That is the reason why we are here. We are here to give you emotions. To give you the sound of beauty, of harmony. That sound that the world is forgetting.
“Without music, the world will become more and more savage. So I am so happy to see all of you in this historic hall, in front of an orchestra that is 130 years old that has given beauty and music and enrichment to generations. I’m asking you to stay close to the orchestra. Tell your friends, tell your colleagues to come to hear the orchestra. Not just to hear the music, but to receive through music beauty, harmony and as Beethoven said, brotherhood.”
Opening the ninety-minute, intermissionless program were two works receiving their first performances by the CSO, works by composers of color that were a fitting aural acknowledgment of how much the world had changed in the wake of the death of George Floyd: eighteenth-century composer, violinist and fencer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Overture to “L’ Amant anonyme” and early twentieth-century Chicago composer Florence Price’s “Andante moderato.”
An orchestration for strings of a movement from Price’s String Quartet in G Major, “Andante moderato” served as an appetizer for the Muti-led CSO performances of Price’s Third Symphony that would happen later in the season. The CSO was the first major symphony orchestra to perform the music of Price—her First Symphony, under then-music director Frederick Stock in 1933.
“Beautiful music, no?” Muti asked after coming out into a largely empty hall during a rehearsal break earlier in the week. “Of course, it takes a lot of care. The Chevalier is airy, dancelike, a breath of fresh air. It is the same tonality as ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ [The Price] is like making an advance. You have an accelerando in one bar, a ritardando in the next bar. Back and forth,” said Muti, moving to illustrate. “I’m sure she must have had a great sense of humor. It should be free.”
After so much time apart, it was astounding to experience that in rendering the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony both in rehearsal and performance, Muti and the CSO quickly sounded as if the Beethoven cycle that they began in 2019 in anticipation of the Beethoven 250th anniversary in 2020 were continuing on as if the cycle had never been interrupted. “Sì,” Muti responded. “We have become like one person, no? They can do anything.
“Your colleagues will say, ‘We already know Beethoven,’” said Muti with a glare and in a scolding tone. “But every day in the sand, you have to work to find the water, no? When music critics say, ‘Oh, Beethoven. Again.’ No. Always Beethoven. Not only because it’s eternal music, like bread. But because you need to go more deeply. And the more you conduct and the more you study the scores again and again, the more you find things you have not noticed, that you have not absorbed. La vida.”
When Muti and the CSO’s planned January 2022 tour of Asia fell through due to pandemic restrictions, Muti devoted that time in part to community outreach concerts. The first occurred at Morton East High School in Cicero, where Muti led an all-Beethoven program that included the “Coriolan” Overture and the Eighth and Fifth Symphonies. Muti was impressed with the attentive, near-capacity family audience that attended the free concert during a blizzard and with the venue itself. “This hall was built in such a way that the acoustics could be excellent here,” said Muti backstage after the concert. “In this way, the Chicago Symphony could have a series of concerts here. It could also be a good place for recording.”
The second community outreach concert took place on a cold night at the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn, the third time Muti and the CSO had performed there. Pastor Dr. Byron T. Brazier enthusiastically introduced the concert and noted that Muti had said “in one of his interviews how much he loved Apostolic. I want all to know that we love Maestro Muti,” Brazier said to thunderous applause. “We appreciate and thank each and every one of you in this orchestra.”
An intermissionless program of Vivaldi concerti—spotlighting CSO soloists Robert Chen, Stephanie Jeong, David Taylor, Yuan-Qing Yu and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson—and Handel’s “Water Music” followed, the audience gently pulled in by the intimacy of the smaller forces compared to the full orchestra that had performed there in previous concerts.
“Thank you for coming to hear one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” Muti said, interrupting an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion of the concert. “I would say greatest orchestra in the world, but I don’t want to have others upset!
“I am very happy and we are very honored that Mayor Lightfoot is here tonight. And the First Lady, also. We are always happy when you come to see us.
“Music is something that is extremely important. The first voice of God was harmony. And I am sure that there was some sound, it cannot be that the universe is without sound. It is called the harmony of the spheres of the planet.
“Our music—music of other countries, of different languages—all comes from the soul and the heart. It is universal and very important.
“A saint once said, ‘Cantare, amantis est.’ To make music, to sing, is an expression of love. Universal love.
“For twenty-five years, I have done Roads of Friendship concerts all over the world. One time when we were in Nairobi in Kenya, some wonderful kids did a chorus from an Italian opera, the famous ‘Va, pensiero.’ They were fantastic. They sang with perfect pronunciation of the Italian language. Music can free us to be brothers.
“We will come back to you,” Muti continued to applause. “But my goal is that you also come to us. Don’t be afraid of a famous hall, of people that are ‘competent,’ that think they know everything about music. Such people don’t know anything! They should stay home. You should come.
“We will play music that belongs to your tradition, but also the music that belongs to so-called ‘our’ tradition. But it is all of our tradition. Then I will be happy. We open our doors to you. We need you.
“Frederick II, the famous emperor whom I worship, said, ‘Semper patent corda magis.’ The door of our theater is always open to you. And our heart is open, even more.”
“That was beautiful, Maestro,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot, coming into the sanctuary with First Lady Amy Eshleman to greet Muti after the concert, both visibly moved. “This is such a blessing to this community. It lifted everyone’s spirits. I learned classical music when I was in high school and we learned ‘Messiah’ from beginning to end. Handel is so distinctive. Getting to hear this was such a treat.”
Less than a month later, Muti made his first foray into the music of Minimalism, conducting Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Muti before he took the podium, “we are delighted that the composer is also attending the performance.”
That Glass—who had just turned eighty-five and had turned down all interview requests related to these performances as well as a Philip Glass Film Festival the CSO had co-sponsored—was in attendance for the last two of three CSO performances of his Eleventh Symphony was a surprise. His management had said for weeks he would not be attending.
“We decided very late,” Glass related at a reception after the concert. “Technically speaking, I didn’t have the time to come.” Glass had a commission from the National Symphony for his Symphony No. 15, which was originally supposed to have had its Kennedy Center world premiere the following month. The premiere has since been postponed until October.
Given that Glass lived in Chicago when he was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and attended CSO concerts every Friday afternoon during the Fritz Reiner era, would he really have missed the first time the CSO ever performed a Glass symphony? “No!” said Glass emphatically in hindsight. “The thing is, I convinced myself I didn’t have time to come because I had other things to do. But my wife said, ‘We have to go.’ And I said, ‘You’re right.’”
“It’s a wonderful ensemble, this orchestra,” Glass continued. “I’ve been listening to it since I was fifteen years old. I lived here from fifty-two to fifty-six, five years in all. It really is amazing, isn’t it?”
Did Glass notice the new bust of Reiner in the lobby? “Yes!” he said, wide-eyed. “You know, in those days, I couldn’t go up to Reiner and talk to him. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. I would get a student ticket in the gallery—you could hear everything up there—and get on the IC [train, now Metra] and go home. The aura is still here. It’s an amazing orchestra. In the fifties, we used to say that the best orchestra in America was Chicago. I still think it’s true.”
“All I can say is I live in Boston,” said Glass’ manager, “and we’re in New York. I am so jealous!”
“Maestro!” said Muti, greeting Glass, coming over to embrace him. “Now I have to calm down. Your piece gave me a lot of electricity! You promise that you will write a piece for me?”
“Sure!” Glass responded without hesitation.
“You have such sensitivity,” Muti continued. “The wonderful colors you give to the orchestra. The second movement is really atmospheric.”
“That’s wonderful that you let that come out,” said Glass, beaming.
“I was very, very happy,” said Muti. “You know, I spent more nights with you than with my wife! Studying the score, of course!”
“When will I see you again?” said Glass, walking with Muti, arm-in-arm.
“I hope soon,” said Muti. “And many greetings from my wife because they played this piece in Ravenna [where Cristina Muti runs the Ravenna Festival] with Dennis Russell Davies.”
“The thing is,” said Glass, “is that you took this piece to the end, and beyond.”
“There is so much more there,” said Muti. “Also, I am older. When you are older, you are more pensive. When you read the score, you have an impression. But going in, in, in more deeply, you find that behind the notes, there are so many other things.”
“I think the repeats are correct,” said Glass.
“And I also corrected some notes!” Muti responded.
“Of course,” said Glass. “So do I.”
Muti began singing a particular passage in solfeggio: “La, mi, sol, do. There is a G-sharp in the violins, a G natural in the flute.” Glass looked perturbed.
“No, no,” said Muti. “It was not your fault. It was a printer’s error. So, we corrected it. Who is the publisher?”
“It’s her,” said Glass, pointing to a woman across the room who is brought over to join in to listen to Muti’s suggestions. Glass wanted to see Muti’s score.
“It is an elegant score,” Muti continued. “But making it larger would help conductors of a certain age who generally lose a little bit of eyesight. And the repeats should not say ‘three times,’ or ‘four times.’ It is confusing. It’s better to write them out. One repeat is fine, but four bars times four is sixteen. I was no good at mathematics! Sixteen is a big effort. Counting repeats also distracts the musicians.”
“It is difficult,” Glass admitted. “When I play my music, I get distracted, too. It’s a big responsibility. You make a very good point. The best thing may be to write out the repeats. We haven’t tried it.”
After Muti left the reception, Glass commented, “He really brings a lot to the table, doesn’t he? He got the orchestra really involved and they were buying into the piece.”
Indeed, but it didn’t start that way. There was a lot of initial skepticism—even some ridicule—amongst some of the players during that first rehearsal, but Muti kept emphasizing, “Don’t be mechanical.” Instead of the monolithic, metronomic wall of sound so often associated with Glass’ music, Muti chose to bring out freedom and flexibility.
A few days later on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. Like many, Muti had seen it coming, but felt it quite personally as he had performed a concert in the presence of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and had met the Russian leader. That night, Muti was to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the first in a series of performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.
“Good evening,” said Muti somberly to the audience before that evening’s concert. “The stage where we make music should never be a place for political announcements or statements. We make music. That means joy and peace.
“But we cannot play this symphony dedicated to joy and brotherhood without thinking of the sufferings of the people of Ukraine.” Sustained applause followed.
“Just a few years ago,” Muti continued, “I conducted a Concert for Friendship in Kyiv. I found wonderful, happy people. What we are seeing on television is horrible.
“Tonight in the final movement of the symphony, taking the text from Schiller, Beethoven speaks about joy, joy, joy. But we will all think in that moment that joy without peace, cannot exist.
“And so I hope that from this wonderful hall, from the orchestra, from the chorus, a message should arrive. Not only to all the people in the Ukraine but in the world that are creating violence, hate and this strange need for war. We are against all of that.”
It was a moving experience to hear Beethoven’s epic work under such trying circumstances. It was made all the more dramatic as choristers removed their masks just before their first entrance of “Freude!” (literally, “Joy”). Muti had worked with a masked chorus earlier in the week to sing that word and Schiller’s poetry, “with beauty.” “So often,” Muti had cautioned, “it sounds like German shepherds.” The third movement adagio was ethereal, the entropy of the opening of the finale, terrifying.
By Saturday’s Ninth, Muti had become more direct in his pre-concert audience remarks. “The situation, as you know, has become even more tragic,” said Muti. “I would like to send a message to Mr. Putin from this glorious Orchestra Hall in front of the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I met Mr. Putin a few years ago after a concert in Moscow. ‘Mr. Putin, send back your bloody tanks and give back freedom, dignity and integrity to the glorious people of Ukraine!’”
Cardinal Blase Cupich attended the Sunday afternoon performance and stopped to see Muti after the concert, expressing in Italian how moved he was. Muti, a traditional Roman Catholic, was grateful and kissed his ring as he left.
In late March, Muti led the world premiere of the culminating piece of Missy Mazzoli’s concluded tenure as CSO composer-in-residence. “Orpheus Undone” is a reworking of some of the material Mazzoli had used in ballet music she had written for “Orpheus Alive” for the National Ballet of Canada in 2019. As such, it felt a bit phoned-in for a world premiere, an effect magnified by the fact that the composer did not attend the rehearsals to prepare the work, save for the final dress rehearsal.
Muti seemed surprised to see Mazzoli, as all week he had looked out into the hall to find her whenever the piece was about to be worked on, to no avail. “Is the composer here?” Muti would shout to no answer. At that final dress rehearsal, Mazzoli came walking up from the hall, up the left side stairs to the stage and slowly across the stage when the run-through of her piece had concluded. She opened her score and looked like she was about to give a dissertation to Muti and the orchestra. There was a long pause. “You’re not going to give us corrections now, are you?” said Muti incredulously. “We don’t have time.” There was still a Mahler song cycle and a Bruckner symphony yet to go through, pieces so long that just getting through them with the required break would take up all that day’s rehearsal time. “Okay,” said Mazzoli as she started to walk off the stage. “We will play it better tonight,” Muti reassured her as Mazzoli walked back out into the hall, collected her things and left the rehearsal.
It was a far different story when new CSO composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery joined Muti from the very beginning of the rehearsal process for the May world premiere of her “Hymn for Everyone.” After a first run-through, Muti called Montgomery—who was sitting out in the hall with her father—to the stage and introduced her to the orchestra. “She is a very good composer,” said Muti. “You have real inspiration.”
“This piece was in part inspired by ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the first ascending line,” explained Montgomery to the orchestra. “But it was also inspired by some kind of hymn or song. I wrote it during the pandemic as sort of a personal reflection.”
“The way you change the theme each time with a different orchestration is very unique,” said Muti. “How is the tempo?”
“It should always have the feeling that it is moving, that it has momentum,” Montgomery responded.
Muti began humming some of the piece. “The tempo sounds like Schubert here. More chimes,” he added.
“It sounds good!” said Montgomery.
“It was good?” Muti asked. “You are one of the composers still alive [to tell us what you want], so we will leave it as is!”
The next day Montgomery had a list of corrections that she went through with Muti and the CSO, followed by another run-through that addressed them. The orchestra applauded and Muti said, “Grazie. Congratulations!”
The day of the world premiere, the dress rehearsal was an Open Rehearsal for donors, the first since the pandemic. The preview audience was very receptive to Montgomery’s “Hymn for Everyone” as was the audience that heard its world premiere that evening. It is a vibrant and colorful piece that, despite its brevity takes listeners on an aural journey.
At a reception after the premiere, Montgomery was very pleased and seemed to be getting exactly what she wanted. “[Muti] was very generous in his interpretation,” she said. “We had time to figure everything out. I am extremely happy. I couldn’t ask for a better premiere. Sometimes a premiere doesn’t go, you know, quite the way you want. But I deeply felt the care that he put into it and all that the musicians put into it. I’ve had such a beautiful welcome in Chicago and everyone is really, really sweet. I’m being given all kinds of tips on things to do, shows to see, music venues.”
Perhaps Montgomery having been so constructive with criticisms placed Muti in a more experimental mood in preparing that week’s other pieces as well.
“You know,” said Muti on a break rehearsing the Beethoven Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”) earlier in the week, “this piece has the best storm in all of music, with a ‘Thank you, Lord’ at the end. We usually hear it as a German storm, ponderous. An Italian storm is more lyrical.” Muti laughs at the thought that the weather is better in Italy than in Germany.
“I have very few years in front of me,” said Muti after the orchestra had reassembled and traversed the third and fourth movements. “This ending is a nightmare. There are many possibilities. Furtwängler always did a very formal end,” said Muti as he hummed the ending that way, very drawn out. “Toscanini just went briskly through it, bum-bum, goodbye. Let’s try it both ways.”
After hearing both, Muti assessed, “I am leaning more toward the first version.” Mocking what the players might be thinking, Muti said, “‘Which one is he going to do? Is he going to follow his head or his heart?’ Exactly in tempo. Grazie, I will see you tonight.”
“This is what a music director who has a wonderful relationship with an orchestra can do,” said Muti after the rehearsal. “This finale has been bothering me all my life. Furtwängler exaggerates it. With Toscanini, it’s almost irritating. It’s something in the middle. You have to allow time for the celli and bassi to play fortissimo for the last three notes.”
In introducing the “Pastoral” Symphony at the Open Rehearsal for donors, Muti characterized it as “the most difficult of the nine symphonies. It is very transparent, very delicate. It’s very different from the Fifth and the Seventh. It’s a chapter by itself among the compositions of Beethoven. It’s less played generally because conductors—including me—are a very special race, unfortunately not in extinction,” said Muti to laughter. “They are growing every day. To play an instrument is very different. To do this,” said Muti, waving his baton, “is very easy. If you do this,” said Muti, waving his baton backwards to the orchestra behind him to scattered dissonant bits from the orchestra and guffaws from the donors, “something happens. Today, everybody conducts. Everybody. It’s the cemetery of the elephants.
“The ‘Pastoral’ is not played enough. Not only because it is difficult but because it ends practically piano [softly]. The public generally reacts more favorably to loud endings. That is why some composers are becoming more performed because their endings are very, very loud. Everyone is excited. The Brahms Third Symphony is the most beautiful of the four Brahms symphonies but it is less played because it ends piano. We should not react to the loudness of the sound. We should react to the feelings that the conductor and an orchestra can bring to you. But I have been saying this for sixty years. Now, one leg is already in the grave,” said Muti, kicking up his right leg straight up, to laughter. “We need this symphony. When some of you need refreshment for your soul, come here.”
At the final Muti-led CSO performance, which included Montgomery’s “Hymn for Everyone,” the CSO’s African American Network hosted its first public event since the pandemic, a post-concert dialogue with Montgomery and veteran Chicago composer, conductor, violinist and violist Renée Baker.
“The African American Network was created to correct a wrong,” said Baker with her signature candor. “I see Jessie Montgomery’s presence here as a continuation of what the CSO started with the Network. It takes a long time to erase ugly. But the CSO is working to erase ugly. Now, we have the first African American female composer-in-residence. And that didn’t happen overnight. This is the future. This is where we’re going. The fact that the CSO and the African American Network embraced me, we were laying groundwork and footsteps that allowed future generations to grab what was happening here and take it further.”
“I think of a hymn as a wish or calling or prayer,” said Montgomery in discussing her piece, “Hymn for Everyone.” “I would say I am not a religious person. I didn’t grow up in a particular religious practice. But I appreciate, respect and connect with the need to express something that is not tangible. There is something intangible that you can’t describe but that we feel, that we know.
“This hymn or song came to me during a time that was very difficult for me personally. It’s a wish. It’s also a reflection on pain. It was around the time of the George Floyd murder. Many of my colleagues were doing these beautiful performances online of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and doing whatever they could to bring soothing and context.
“In a way, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is contradictory. It’s a wish as well. But the actual experience is not necessarily the same as the wish. It’s a wish that also carries in it the reality of why we need to sing that song. ‘Hymn for Everyone’ means everyone in their own way.”
The following week, Chicago composer Florence Price made a remarkable and long-overdue journey back home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after nearly ninety years. As noted earlier, Price’s First Symphony was premiered by Frederick Stock and the CSO, and performed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Price’s Third Symphony was to have been given its CSO premiere by Muti in spring 2020 but the pandemic delayed that premiere another two years. The 1938-40 work is a remarkable tour de force of Americana.
“It is written very well,” Muti said of the Price Third Symphony during the break after its first CSO rehearsal earlier in the week. “It should be rhapsodic. When she uses spirituals, dances and elements from her culture, we have to remember she is using these elements to make a symphony. So, we shouldn’t exaggerate them, I think. It should be natural.” Not like a caricature. “Bravo.”
The work is revelatory on several levels. Instead of using faux American elements the way Dvorák had, it turns out Price was using African-American elements in a distinctive and original way. It was not unlike how her contemporary Béla Bartók had been incorporating Hungarian folk music elements into his compositions.
“The reason that this composer has been neglected for so long is that there are a lot of stupid people out there,” Muti told the audience at the premiere. “The heart has no color.”
The performance was breathtaking, particularly the pace, precision and dynamics of the final two movements. The third movement is a syncopated dance called the Juba that Muti meticulously worked out with the piece’s large battery of percussion. The piece was a huge triumph and was enthusiastically received.
Also on the program—and perfect for Mother’s Day weekend, which is when it was performed—was William Grant Still’s “Mother and Child.” Still, another early-twentieth-century Black composer, was a neighbor of Florence Price in Little Rock, Arkansas before she moved to Chicago early in 1927. Muti noted as he rehearsed the piece that he added the touch of a “loving grandfather” to Still’s piece, also receiving its CSO premiere.
There were pre-concert discussions and performances of chamber music by Price and Jessie Montgomery in locales around the hall prior to each of the performances.
“Even though Florence Price had her piece played here,” Montgomery said, “I had a very different experience than she did. It feels like a page being turned. Having heard Florence Price and the incredible detail of the interpretation, it’s like she’s coming back to life in these concerts. I grew up in New York City, a very different scenario. Both of my parents were artists and I grew up with music in my house as a kid. In that, I feel similarity with Florence Price and the support she received. Her perseverance, I feel so inspired by. Her drive has brought us here today. I really connect with that a lot.”
By mid-June, rehearsals had begun for the last opera of Muti’s music directorship at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera.”
It had been announced before the season began that Duain Wolfe’s twenty-eight-year tenure as chorus director of the CSO Chorus would end with the February performances of the Beethoven Ninth. As such, Muti had asked legendary Metropolitan Opera Chorus Director—and former Lyric Opera Chorus Director—Donald Palumbo to prepare the CSO Chorus for “Ballo.”
Amazingly, for the prior five weeks Palumbo had flown in from New York once a week to work with the CSO Chorus. The results were dazzling from the first chorus-only rehearsal Muti led.
Palumbo had been at Lyric during a Golden Age, 1991-2007. The Met lured him away and he’s been there ever since. Palumbo and Muti had only worked together one time, twelve years ago when Muti made his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s “Attila.” Muti loathed the production and has never been back to the Met since. But he and the Met Orchestra and the Met Chorus formed an indelible bond. In fact, Muti was wearing the gold watch the Met Chorus gave him. Palumbo said that working with Muti again was “a dream come true” and that he was the only conductor that could get him to work off-season from the Met. Both were clearly relishing the experience and were wonderfully trading off of each other’s creativity and energy.
The first orchestra-only rehearsal of “Ballo” had Muti singing all the roles to guide the players. Muti’s voice had been showing strain since the second choral rehearsal but work always seemed to restore it.
The next morning Muti began the rehearsal of that week’s subscription program of the Brahms First Symphony and the Beethoven Violin Concerto by letting the orchestra know that the week’s soloist, German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, was not able to fly yet as she had been “under the weather.” Mutter was expected to be in Chicago the following evening so hopefully she would be able to rehearse the morning of the performance. “Mr. Chen,” said Muti, referring to the CSO’s concertmaster, “has agreed to play the Beethoven for today’s rehearsal and if necessary, will play the performance.” The orchestra applauded in solidarity.
The morning of the concert was an Open Rehearsal, although uncharacteristically, Muti walked out masked and didn’t say a word and went straight to work to do a run-through of the Brahms First Symphony, albeit with a different First Horn due to illness.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” said CSO Association president Jeff Alexander after the break. “So good to have you here. As you might have noticed, Maestro was not feeling quite well during the first half of the rehearsal this morning. We just gave him his daily test and unfortunately, he has tested positive.” This news was greeted with audible gasps and groans of concern.
“He’s in great spirits and wanted to come back out, and sends his greetings to all of you,” Alexander continued. “But Anne-Sophie Mutter is here and so is our wonderful Solti conducting apprentice, Lina Gonzalez-Granados. They have worked together and know each other so we’re going to go on with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Thank you very much.”
Gonzalez-Granados finished the rehearsal and conducted the same program later that night without having rehearsed the Brahms First, the main work on the program. Two performances followed. It brought to mind when Muti had tested positive in early April and remained isolated in his hotel until a negative test five days later allowed him to lead an Open Rehearsal for the Youth in Music Festival. Gonzalez-Granados had stepped in on that occasion as well, to lead that week’s subscription concerts. Repertoire adjustments were made, however, as too many players were also out to do the originally scheduled program. That left Gonzalez-Granados to conduct a couple of opera overtures while Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes conducted two Mozart piano concertos from the piano.
In this case, Muti was already testing negative Saturday and was working with the singers for “Ballo” on Sunday. Monday he was back leading the first two of four “tutti” rehearsals for everyone. The dress rehearsal the day before the first performance was an Open Rehearsal.
“As you know,” said Muti introspectively, taking in the massive assemblage of international soloists, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus spread out before him, “everything comes to its end. This is the last opera that we will do together. I wanted to thank the orchestra and the chorus for this long voyage of Verdi that we have taken together over all these years: Messa de Requiem. ‘Otello.’ ‘Macbeth.’ ‘Falstaff.’ ‘Aida.’ And now, ‘Un ballo in maschera.’
“I will treasure the memories of this wonderful music making with you. I consider it a gift from God that I received at the end of my life to do these operas with you and these wonderful groups of singers. Grazie.”
Riccardo Muti opens his final season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 7:30pm September 22. cso.org.
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