Mutatis mutandis: Muti goes to Chicago
I've looked up a note I wrote to myself on June 22, 1976, after having observed Riccardo Muti (who was then not quite 35) rehearse the orchestra of La Scala. Bear in mind as you read the following excerpts from those hastily jotted-down pages, that I myself was active as a conductor at the time, although at very modest levels, and that I had previously followed the rehearsals of George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Karel Ancerl, Claudio Abbado, Carlo Maria Giulini, Karl Boehm, Carlos Kleiber, Georges Pretre and many other conductors.
"I had heard many good things about him [...] and was prepared to shake my head and wonder what all the fuss was about - as is usually the case. I am delighted that the reverse is true: I feel that he has not been praised highly enough.
"[...] He knows exactly what sound he wants and he knows exactly how to get it - and this not only in regard to the general, overall picture (which he never loses sight of) but in regard to every detail. His mastery of the score is complete, his ear absolutely first-rate, and his way of dealing with the orchestra just right - firm, always demanding the best they can give, but totally unauthoritarian. His attitude in front of the orchestra is unegocentric - it is that of working towards a common goal, and he never loses sight of that. He has the ability and self-possession of a Szell or a Boulez, but far greater naturalness and humanity than the former and a sense of conviction that the latter seems to be lacking in a considerable chunk of the repertoire. [...] And as much as I admired Carlos Kleiber's work here earlier this season, I must say that I think Muti's natural gifts, certainly insofar as balance, intonation, and sheer memorization of detail are concerned, are greater than Kleiber's. They both communicate enthusiasm to the orchestra very well, but in completely different ways. Kleiber is more 'personal,' one has more of a sense of his own psychological make-up [...], whereas with Muti what radiates is more a sense of drama [...]. Muti seems more a phenomenon of nature."
During the intervening 32 years, I have had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of opportunities to observe Muti at work in Milan and elsewhere, in the opera house and concert hall, and my initial impression of his complete seriousness, competence, and musicality has remained unchanged. Do I always, automatically, agree with his repertoire choices or interpretations? Of course not. But what is most important in conductor-orchestra relationships is the feeling on the part of individual musicians that the person in charge is guiding them expertly and with conviction - that that person can be trusted completely to do the job in an outstanding way and can therefore communicate the need to do likewise to the people who are playing the instruments. Over the last three years, watching and listening to Muti work with the grateful and enthusiastic Orchestra Cherubini (a youth ensemble) in the small town of Piacenza, Italy, was an absolute delight, and then observing him electrify the New York Philharmonic - which, like most other first-rate professional orchestras, can often be ungrateful and unenthusiastic, usually with good reason - was simply amazing.
As a New York resident - and despite my esteem for Alan Gilbert and high hopes for his forthcoming tenure with the Philharmonic - I am sorry that Muti will be diminishing his appearances with the local band, but at least we will be able to look forward to frequent visits by him with the magnificent Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
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