Muti speaks in Chicago
A storm of TV cameras, tape recorders, and mics seems an unlikely setting for matters classical, but the welcome press conference of the new CSO music director, Riccardo Muti, is no small deal in this town. Even Bill Osborn, CSO Chairman, read a letter in its entirety from Mayor Daley who congratulated the sun-kissed Italian conductor on the hire. Press releases for this event were a tad—if not intentionally--ambiguous, so to see the maestro in person was a relief. (What with the maestro’s busy international career, I thought a teleconference might be in the cards and thank God it wasn’t.) In the Grainger ballroom on the second floor of Symphony Center, CSO President Deborah Card brought along speakers that included Osborn and bassist Steve Lester, who’s also the chairman of the CSO Members’ Committee.
The 66 year-old conductor sat stone-faced in between them, but once he took to the podium and fielded questions, it became clear that he intended to make the proceedings lively. “I thought it was a horse!” he said to erupting laughter, when addressing the question of what was on his iPod (“iPod” evidently reminded him of some horsey-like Italian word). He’s not listening to much these days and may not be Steve Jobs around a computer, but he reminded us he “isn’t conservative.”
Look no further than the repertoire he plans to bring here. Speaking at length about this particular issue, he resolved not to make any promises about anything (“I’m a musician, not a politician” – and “words divide us, not unite us”) but said he’ll do everything from “Baroque to contemporary.” And not just established contemporary composers like John Adams and Stockhausen either, but locals like Ralph Shapey (RIP) and budding composers around the world (“We should not be provincial; we should communicate with other nations”). He humorously emphasized that contemporary music will always be a source of anxiety for audiences, and that we need to show patience. “I understand we are still physiologically made for melody and the traditional harmonic system,” he said. “Who knows, maybe in 400 years people will have big, big heads and really small arms” he joked.
Muti quelled concerns about his La Scala fall-out by emphasizing that people tend to overlook the 19 years of “wonderful music making” he spent there. He frequently asks musicians from La Scala to play for him and they do: “The musicians love me,” he said, reflecting on all the fruitful years he spent in not only Milan, but in London and Philadelphia as well.
Most refreshing to hear is Muti’s commitment to making the CSO a first-class ambassador of the city and that seeking out new audiences for this music is one of the most “important aspects” of his mission. “I’ll go to schools, hospitals and prisons if I have to,” he said. Even though most star conductors/directors have an aversion to this type of work, I’ll give Muti the benefit of the doubt and hold him to his word.
The relationship between him and the orchestra is arguably the most significant and it was awesomely validating to hear in detail one of the magic moments that cemented the unique bond. In the second movement of the Prokofiev 3rd Symphony, which he performed here last Fall, a difficult passage with rising violins in unison has long challenged Muti with other orchestras from around the world. In a rehearsal with the CSO, the “passage was perfect” and Muti couldn’t believe it. He told the players to do it again. Perfect again. He could only describe the chemistry as “a miracle.” If that wasn't enough, he even repeated himself about taking ideas from the musicians instead of only doing things his way. “The CSO is not just an ordinary orchestra,” he said. “The will give you everything.” For a symphony orchestra and a music director to enjoy long-term success depends on many a variable; but perhaps none is more consoling than that of mutual respect.