Whatever angst there may be over Riccardo Muti's missing his third set of concerts in less than three years as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director, know that the flu-ridden superstar conductor is no Luciano Pavarotti.
The famed tenor had bowed out of 26 of 41 scheduled performances at the Lyric Opera between 1981 and 1989 when Lyric general director Ardis Krainik decided she and the Lyric's subscribers had suffered enough, and she announced in a news release that the opera company “could not consider any future engagements with Mr. Pavarotti.” Her public break with the singer after his no-show for a season-opening “Tosca” was greeted with widespread cries of “Brava!”
Pavarotti's woeful 37 percent attendance record puts Muti's health-related absences, including the current two weeks of subscriber concerts that required a guest conductor after he arrived flu-ridden in Chicago last week, into some perspective.
Subscribers might be forgiven for feeling a bit of deja vu when a Muti illness scotched his latest winter residency. It was two years ago, just before a three-week winter residency, when he collapsed during a rehearsal and wound up in the hospital with facial fractures and, eventually, a new pacemaker.
In fall 2010, Muti's inaugural residency as CSO music director was cut short due to gastric distress and exhaustion.
But after Muti was discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in February 2011, he completed the rest of the 2010-11 season's programs and had a perfect CSO attendance record through the end of 2012. He led 61 programs in Chicago and on tour during the 2010-11 season and another 10 so far in the 2011-12 season, including performances in Mexico and at New York's Carnegie Hall, according to CSO records.
A look to the scoreboard reveals that Muti has led 92 CSO programs overall, including tours that also took him and the orchestra to Russia, Italy and other European countries as well as California, and has missed 25 performances, including the seven scheduled for last week and this. Given that his current absences are the result of the 71-year-old maestro's contracting the flu during the worst flu season in years, people around the orchestra are inclined to give him a mulligan, though Muti also canceled a November engagement with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra citing the flu.
"I know people are anxious about it, but other than it being really inconvenient, these things happen," CSO Association President Deborah Rutter said.
"He's frankly been very healthy and vigorous ever since he got his pacemaker," CSO bassoonist William Buchman said. "This just seems random at a time we've got a flu epidemic ravaging the United States and Europe."
CSO management and musicians certainly do not see Muti's issues as having risen to the level of James Levine, who stepped down as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011 after health problems prompted him to cancel performances in March 2006, summer 2008, fall 2009, spring and summer 2010 and February/March 2011. Levine also has been on hiatus as music director of the Metropolitan Opera since 2011 but is scheduled to return in May.
Rutter said Muti arrived in Chicago on Jan. 7 intending to conduct last week's all-Beethoven program (which has its final performance Tuesday) — as well as Brahms' Fourth Symphony coupled with works by Stravinsky and Busoni for the coming weekend — but he realized immediately that he was too ill to push ahead and returned home to Italy the next day.
CSO bassist Stephen Lester, chairman of the Orchestra Member Committee, said he also spoke to Muti, who "did not sound himself. He did not sound well." Lester described the conductor as "angry" and "upset" over the cancellations.
"This is not a decision he would have made lightly," Lester said. "He is sensitive to (health concerns), and he should be because he's in very good health otherwise."
The looming issue this time is that the orchestra is about to embark upon its first Asian tour with Muti, two weeks of concerts that will require a healthy maestro. The obvious hope is that he can get better before he joins the musicians next week in Taipei, Taiwan. The tour already has been affected because the orchestra was scheduled to rehearse and perform pieces here that it was planning to present there.
"It throws everything into turmoil because we were preparing repertoire for that tour over these two weeks," Buchman said.
The orchestra did perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) with substitute conductor Edo de Waart over the weekend, and it's a familiar enough piece that it will remain on the tour calendar. But because the orchestra will not be able to work with Muti on the lesser known Stravinsky and Busoni pieces (which have been replaced in Chicago by Mozart's Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) to be conducted by de Waart) — and because the orchestra has just two rehearsals scheduled for the beginning of the tour — those works will be dropped from the overseas repertoire in favor of Dvorak's Symphony No. 5.
Rutter said the CSO team is keeping tabs on which substitute conductors might be available in the Far East if needed, but she is confident that the CSO won't have to veer from Plan A. "I firmly believe that Maestro Muti will be there," she said.
She said Monday that she was in touch with Muti over the weekend, "and he continues to recuperate. I think we are all aware that this flu has 'long legs' and requires a longer than usual recuperation time."
Muti missed Monday's kickoff to the 2013 Chicago Youth in Music Festival, an open rehearsal of an orchestra of area high school students and Civic Orchestra members led instead by Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Muti also was set to attend auditions for CSO violin vacancies, which now have been rescheduled for April, as well as a since-canceled event Friday announcing next season's CSO schedule.
Muti receives a salary as CSO music director plus additional performance fees when he conducts the orchestra; those latter fees are what he forfeits when he misses events. The CSO has disclosed that Muti earned about $2.2 million in salary, performance fees and recording and broadcast fees in calendar year 2011, but the organization had not made available a breakdown of what percentage is represented by performance fees.
Rutter said that although some subscribers exchanged their tickets for this month's concerts that Muti was supposed to lead, additional single-ticket sales helped pick up the slack, and the CSO is exceeding its ticket sales goals for those two weeks. What's impossible to measure is how Muti's cancellations, if perceived to be an ongoing issue, might affect concertgoers' willingness to subscribe down the line.
Rutter said she views Muti's health-related absences as unrelated to one another and doesn't expect them to affect the CSO's relationship with its music director, whose contract runs through the 2014-15 season. "We're certainly in the midst of a mad love affair with the man," she said.
Muti is far from the first conductor or soloist to cancel CSO performances. Previous CSO music director Daniel Barenboim missed the opening weeks of the 2004-2005 season citing back and neck issues and withdrew from four more concerts the following January. Buchman remembers Barenboim taking ill and leaving the stage between movements of a Mahler symphony during a performance in Bucharest, Romania, then returning to finish the piece.
Eighty-three-year old conductor Bernard Haitink, who led the CSO on its Asia tour in 2009, bowed out of a week's worth of concerts in October with no explanation, though he returned to conduct at Orchestra Hall the following week. CSO conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, now 87, also missed two weeks of concerts early last year due to health issues.
"With artists flying internationally all the time with very heavy schedules and spending time on airplanes and dealing with jet lag, it's amazing people don't get sick more often," said Jesse Rosen, president/CEO of the League of American Orchestras.
At any rate, Susan Mathieson Mayer, the Lyric Opera's longtime communications director, gives Muti credit for traveling to Chicago intending to work, something that Pavarotti too often failed to do.
"Clearly he had every intention of performing for his public," Mathieson said. "He was here. And when he was injured on the podium, he was here."