CSO Continues its Reign
Even though Maestro Muti won't be at Ravinia, it's always a great time to sit on the lawn on a beautiful summer evening listening to one of the world's best symphony orchestras. Muti's coming to Chicago to lead the CSO demonstrates that this symphony continues to attract the best talent.
Ricardo Muti, CSO a potent combination New conductor brings energy, experience
By John von Rhein Tribune critic
May 11, 2008
I wouldn't blame the orchestra players for gloating up a storm right now.
With last week's announcement that Riccardo Muti will become the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra finds itself the envy of the symphonic world.
To make the coup even bigger, the CSO stole the brilliant and charismatic Italian maestro right out from under the New York Philharmonic, which has been unable to secure formal commitments from him, despite offering him the music directorship at least once. Muti's current guest conducting arrangement with that orchestra will cease when he begins his five-year tenure here in 2010-11.
Muti is too diplomatic to say so, of course, but the reasons he chose
Chicagoover New Yorkseem implicitly clear: Chicagohas the better orchestra; management promised him conditions he couldn't find in ; and he faces nothing here like the podium competition he would encounter on the East Coast. New York
What A-list senior conductor in the Indian summer of a distinguished career—Muti is a vibrant 66—would not wish to set down roots here? It's the Chicago Symphony, after all.
It has not taken long for the bloggers to weigh in. There are worries that Muti's repertoire may be too conservative. The New Yorker's Alex Ross questions the "jet-set celebrity conductor" mind-set that supposedly brought Muti here, while the San Francisco Chronicle's Joshua Kosman worries that the CSO may be trading long-term security for a "short-term payoff."
If you look at Muti's programming with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he was music director from 1980 to 1992, you'll see he conducted a fair amount of new music in many styles—including Chicago's Ralph Shapey and Shulamit Ran, Gyorgy Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Bernard Rands, William Bolcom, Christopher Rouse, Richard Wernick and Vincent Persichetti. There is no reason to assume Muti will be any less adventuresome with the CSO. He already has commissions in mind.
The CSO did not hire just a marquee name, but a marquee name who is also a superb musician and strong orchestra builder and who seems to be fully committed to the institution, the city and the community.
I don't recall anyone raising the slightest objection when the CSO hired Georg Solti—another "jet-set celebrity conductor," if you will—to take over the CSO in 1969.
In these perilous economic times, an orchestra that only recently extricated itself from years of serious deficits and is slowly reversing the audience erosion that occurred after 2001 has to ask: Which world-class conductor has the best shot at ensuring long-term solvency and artistic pre-eminence? In both respects Muti was the best, perhaps only, choice for the Chicago Symphony.
Both the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic recently hitched their fortunes to talented but relatively untested young music directors, Alan Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel respectively. It's a high-risk gamble. Each podium dervish could carry his orchestra to new heights and stir new excitement among the public; or each could crash and burn, taking his orchestra with him.
The Chicago Symphony is not a gambling orchestra. It chose age and experience over youth and flash. The modus operandi has proved spectacularly successful for the orchestra over the years. Why change now?
Beyond Solti's historic achievements in
, look at all the good things Bernard Haitink, 79, and Pierre Boulez, 83, are doing in their capacity as the CSO's interim leadership team. The challenges Muti will face at the CSO will be made easier by the strong impression he has made with the musicians, public and press after only a month of concerts last September at Orchestra Hall and on the orchestra's European tour. Chicago
Already he has developed a productive working relationship with CSO association president Deborah R. Card and the rest of the staff.
"Right now I am full of enthusiasm," the music director-designate said last week, viewing his appointment in the context of his long career. "I feel like a marathon runner does when he nears the finish line. You run with even more energy because you are happy about the victory."
Clearly the management and board are looking to Muti to do for the Chicago Symphony what Michael Jordan did for the Bulls during the 1990s—pull in more people who would not ordinarily be interested in the "sport" and make them a permanent part of the crowd that cheers the home team to glory.
That's a tall order, but Muti says he is willing to proselytize for classical music within the community and engage with potential donors and new audience members. This immediately sets him apart from his elitist predecessor, Daniel Barenboim, who shunned responsibilities that did not relate specifically to the music.
"I believe an orchestra exists for everybody in the community, not just for the people who can afford to give money and buy tickets," said Muti.
"A music director also has to work with the sponsors to convince them the money they give to support the arts, music in particular, is something that serves the community," he added. "I am prepared to go everywhere to make people aware of the importance of music, to prepare for the next generation."
Muti's contract with the orchestra association calls for him to spend a minimum of 10 weeks a season with the CSO, at home and on tour. That is par for the course for today's jet-propelled international conductors. Those who believe it's too short a residency should remember it is about the same number of weeks Barenboim gave
for most of his 15-year tenure. Whether we like it or not, the days of the live-in music director are over. (Muti says he and his wife, Christina, will be living out of Chicago hotels, at least for the time being, because, as he jokes, he can't even boil an egg for himself.) Chicago
An extremely focused musician who's known for the energy and concentration he brings to each musical project, Muti may be counted on to make maximum use of his weeks here. "For me," he said, "to be a music director means to be involved deeply in the life of an institution, not just to be the sort of conductor that conducts more weeks than others."
His 19 seasons as music director of Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala found him taking charge of many aspects of the operation of that historic opera house, just as his 12-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra saw him stumping for funds and campaigning for the creation of the new concert facility that eventually became Verizon Hall.
Muti gained the reputation for being arrogant following his departure from La Scala in 2005, in a testy imbroglio involving members of the orchestra and other workers in the theater. Even so, I have yet to hear any
musician voice the complaint that Muti is arrogant. To adhere to high standards and to expect those around you to adhere to them too is not the same as being arrogant or dictatorial, CSO members point out. Chicago
"The orchestra has adapted to Muti's musicmaking style with complete ease, and each concert [registers] a greater mutual understanding between us," said CSO assistant principal oboist Michael Henoch, a member of the search committee that enthusiastically recommended the board engage Muti.
Along with his experience as one of the world's great operatic conductors, Muti will bring a wide symphonic repertoire to
, as his voluminous discography proves. Chicago
He has recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Tchaikovsky symphonies, with notable success. He conducts a great deal of Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner and other German and Austrian works central to the CSO's repertoire, even if Mahler has claimed his attention only selectively. No living conductor has done more to bring the broad range of Italian music to audiences, from Giovanni Pergolesi to Berio. He should fit fine into the orchestra's musical tradition.
We can expect him to bring concert opera back to Orchestra Hall, just as he did in
. His 20th Century repertoire is wider than commonly believed. He has championed the music of Hindemith, Dallapiccola, Petrassi, Ligeti, Britten and Shostakovich to wide acclaim. His taste in contemporary music is a good deal more inclusive than Barenboim's. Also, as one blogger who had been disgruntled with Barenboim's programming observes, Muti doesn't do Elliott Carter. Philadelphia
Muti is famed as a strict-constructionist conductor who gives you the score and nothing but the score. As with all such generalities, that is far from the whole story. While he is well known for preventing the singers with whom he works from inserting unwritten notes into certain arias, the maestro is by no means pedantic about doing everything come scritto (as written). Flexibility is key to his approach.
Man of culture
So exacting is his ear for orchestral sonority that you are unlikely to mistake his Debussy for his Wagner. The jury is still out about his Mozart. The Muti performances I have heard have tended to overly prettify Mozart in a romantic style Orchestra Hall heard rather too much of under Daniel Barenboim.
A man of wide culture, Muti advises musicians and audience members wishing to better understand the meaning of a given piece of music to consider it in the context of contemporaneous art works—a mass by the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini alongside the sculptures of neoclassical Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, for example.
Given his ear for clean-lined objectivity in performance, he has sometimes been likened to Arturo Toscanini, a great predecessor at La Scala. That may be true for certain performances of certain pieces, but Muti, in the last analysis, is his own man.
And he is a masterful architect of orchestral sound and structure.
It was clear from his CSO performances of Scriabin, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky last September that he can pull from this orchestra nuances of sonority, line, phrasing and articulation that it did not know it possessed while making something viscerally exciting of the whole.
Based on everything I know about how Muti and the CSO function together, I predict some spectacular concerts are in the offing. I believe the maestro and his musicians are going to be very, very good for each other over the long haul. And together they will be very, very good for the city and its standing in the cultural world.
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