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.


May 12, 2008 10:10 AM | | Comments (2)


Many generations must love Classical Music if it is to survive. Wasn't the Donizetti great? I saw it on a big screen in a packed, and I mean packed, movie theatre in Connecticut. Median age 65-70 years. I'm 54. Did I care? No.

The best part for me was that at the Met, when one goes to a performance, nobody allows an audience member to go into the orchestra pit-my favorite part- and lo, and behold, I got to see the great Met Opera Orchestra pit. That made it all worth it. So I love the music, and I love to see the people who make it.

I am the President and Administrator of a youth orchestra. Our mission is to teach this young generation of musicians to love their music and to carry it on as life-long learning. We will see these young people 15 years from now, the parents who, still playing their own instruments, will entice their children to play and to demand Music programs in their local educational systems. They will have gone through many life-stages, carrying their Music with them, with many things that appeal to them along the way.

Our performances are a formal as any you might see, and yet, they appeal to our audiences who are just learning how to do it. The formality is one way to express professionalism in Music, and I am all for it.

We encourage this love of Music with family level programming, with parents as involved in loving the Music as are their children, and we are quite successful in increasing the numbers sitting in the chairs and the 'levels' at which they enjoy the music. By 'levels', I mean that the very same Bach is enjoyed by the many different people who attend. Some are more proud of their children's technical ability, some go for the melody, some the good grades in school that go with learning Music. But it is an audience that wasn't there four years ago. Humor is a way to appeal to some people, because it has a humanizing effect- I would love it if our young musicians would see the 'person' that is inside the musician- and identify with him/her, for the young people in my orchestra this year and in years to come are people who play Music. When the formality is tempered by humor, it may become more enticing to some, and for that, I am very grateful that big-name musicians will show this generation of Classical Music lovers that the audience can 'get' the jokes and 'get' the level of musicianship that is involved.

Thanks for the ability to share some ideas with you.

Mightn't there be a reason for the Hahn/Ritter pairing apart from audience development? As a jaded former arts administrator, I find the whole idea of "audience development" or "attracting young audiences" problematic at best and insulting at worst. But surely it's not the only reason for such a program.

I wonder more generally how one would define "populism" anyway.

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