"Any donkey can conduct, but to make music is difficult," Riccardo Muti told the young members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago at an open rehearsal last week at Symphony Center.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director was quoting his famous musical forbear and role model, Arturo Toscanini, from whose example Muti drew many lessons that have nurtured his art in the course of a distinguished international career that has thus far spanned some 45 years.
"We are a visual society and people think conducting is nothing but waving your arms," Muti continued. "The truth is, you actually have more control with less gestures."
As if to prove that he practices what he so earnestly preaches, the Neapolitan maestro took his young charges – the ragazzi, as Muti calls them, in Italian – through several movements of the Brahms Second Symphony. Shaping each phrase, sometimes in minute detail, with sparing strokes of his baton, he focused on getting the instrumentalists to feel the expressive tug of every note they were playing.
Well aware they were rehearsing under one of today's most celebrated conductors, the ragazzi played like angels for Muti, and the audience listened with rapt absorption.
The open rehearsal, the second three-hour session the maestro had directed with the Civic players that day, was squeezed into an already packed schedule that found the 71-year-old conductor shuttling between CSO rehearsals and concerts, auditions, interviews, meetings and a recital of original compositions by teenage detainees-turned-musicians at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on the city's West Side.
At a news conference the previous week to amplify already-announced plans for the coming CSO season, Muti made light of his most recent illness, a bout with the flu followed by hernia surgery, in January. The health setback forced him to bow out of his third set of Chicago concerts in less than three years, including his involvement in the CSO's Far East tour, also that month. He wondered why people here make such a big deal of it, particularly since nobody in Europe ever inquires about his health, he said.
He had scarcely more to say on the subject in private. Muti said he felt fine, suggesting that that the illnesses he suffered in recent years – including a fainting spell that occurred during a CSO rehearsal in 2011, leaving him with facial fractures and, eventually, a pacemaker – were unfortunate coincidences he has since taken in stride. His doctors, he said, have given him a clean bill of health. Next question.
A few days later, I asked Deborah Rutter, president of the CSO Association, how much of a bind Muti's cancellations put the orchestra with regard to ticket sales, present and future scheduling, and the like. How prepared is management to deal with further cancellations, should they arise?
The orchestra association stands fully behind Muti and is prepared to weather any unexpected losses of his services in the future, she said.
"We understand that health issues affect everybody. It's easy to forget that when you're around Muti, because he's so vibrant. I don't think of him in the way one thinks of others who are unable to do their concerts for one reason or another. The music-making we experience with Muti is of such an extraordinary nature and has such an incalculable effect on our orchestra, that we want to be able to work with him. We just look to the exciting things we have planned for the future and (which) we are counting on being able to do."
Muti's canceled weeks have not resulted in drops in either ticket sales (which are "running $100,000 ahead of forecast") or fundraising (which has been going "extremely well"), Rutter added.
Meanwhile, over coffee in his suite in the basement of Orchestra Hall, a bemused Muti was speaking about recent articles in the Italian press calling for him to take up a seat in the Italian parliament.
Milan's leading newspaper, Il Giorno, published an open letter urging the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, to appoint Muti "senator for life," the same title once held by Toscanini.
"I'm not running for office," Muti told me. "The only thing I know is conducting." The media clamor reflects the frustration over the political and economic malaise Italy is suffering at the moment, he said. "The Italians don't deserve this chaotic situation. The people should not suffer anymore."
And the constant wrangling of Italian politicians achieves nothing when people have empty stomachs. "Sometimes it seems that politics is more important than the interests of the people. In politics, when three or four start to shout all at once, you can't hear anyone!
"I'm very proud I was a very good student of harmony and counterpoint at the conservatory in Milan. I can follow multiple lines in music; they come together to produce rich harmony. That's the final goal – consonanza ed armonia, consonance and harmony."
Too bad politicians cannot be more like musicians, joining in harmony for the greater good of society, I said. "Si," replied Muti, "it's true."
He appeared to be relieved to turn to subjects very close to his heart: opera and Giuseppe Verdi.
In February, the Rome Opera's "honorary music director for life" scored a success when he conducted Verdi's "I Due Foscari" as part of the company's season-long celebration of the Verdi bicentennial. Muti is widely credited for having revivified the Teatro dell'Opera. Rome's historic theater had been languishing in the artistic doldrums before his arrival in 2008 and is slowly returning to its former glory under his watchful eye. Indeed, the Rome Opera has been invited to perform for the first time at the prestigious Salzburg Festival this summer.
At the same time, Muti is critical of La Scala, Italy's flagship opera house, which he ran for 19 years and where Daniel Barenboim, his CSO predecessor, currently serves as music director. Muti feels the theater was remiss in opening the present season with an opera by Richard Wagner rather than by Verdi, in this, their joint bicentenary, which Muti calls "an accident of genes."
"La Scala represents the soul of Italian music," he said. "It was Verdi's theater at the beginning and end of his career. When an Italian opera house does Italian operas well, they are the best; it's a question of culture, blood and temperament.
"You must not interrupt the tradition, because if the chain is broken, it's difficult to put back together. And even if you can put it back together, it won't be the same."
This week Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the third and final set of subscription concerts of his spring residency. Pianist Maurizio Pollini will be the soloist in a program of Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $40-$270; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
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