An Italian conductor opens his mouth, and rumors fly about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's next director
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra found itself in the spotlight last week, but not for the usual reason.
It all started with a newspaper quote. On April 19, Italian conductor Riccardo Muti—known for his dictatorial demeanor—was quoted in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica as saying that he'd been made an "offer" by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it spread all over the Internet, followed by a firestorm of rumors suggesting that Muti would be the CSO's next music director, replacing Daniel Barenboim when he resigns next season.
The timing of the news seemed strange. The CSO had been touring in Europe only two weeks ago, so it was unlikely that it could have found a conductor so quickly; the search committee would've needed to meet to arrange an offer. Eventually it was announced that Muti had only been invited to guest conduct the orchestra—a Grand Canyon–size difference from being offered the music director title.
That Muti's name even came up was the strangest part of all.
He had been at the front of another classical-world controversy recently for his actions at Milan's La Scala, one of the world's major opera houses. In February, the company's general director, Carlo Fontana, was fired—apparently at Muti's encouragement—and replaced with Muti favorite Mauro Meli. The musicians and other unionized workers at La Scala were furious, saying that Muti ran the house as his own private fiefdom. Lawsuits were threatened, and the orchestra went on strike and called for Meli to resign; he did on April 2. Given this recent history, it was a little surprising to think that Muti might be the next CSO music director. Why would the organization seek out such a volatile personality? The CSO musicians we talked to were all surprised (or "bewildered") but said neither the search committee nor the musician's committee had said anything to them.
Then there was the fact that Muti hadn't conducted the CSO for 30 years. It's usually only after the musicians and administration have decided that they enjoy working with conductors that they are offered a permanent position. For Muti to have intimated that his situation was handled otherwise shows that La Repubblica's reporter hadn't thought to ask the obvious follow-up question—"What kind of offer were you made?"—or that Muti's arrogance hasn't lessened since he left La Scala. Or both.
Things may have flared up because people are keeping an eye on the CSO. Deborah Card, the CSO's president, had been in New York the previous week because Muti was guest conducting at the New York Philharmonic (the trip was described as "the worst-kept secret in the business"). Card offered Muti a chance to return to Orchestra Hall as a guest conductor—one of many such offers made when Barenboim isn't in town—and renew his relationship with the orchestra.
There's usually a parade of conductors coming through the CSO every week or two, and while all are theoretically being considered for the director position, being on the guest-conductor circuit is by no means like being on the short list.
Muti's "offer" was extended to many other conductors as well, but as one CSO player says, "We could do a lot worse than Muti, for sure." Stay tuned to our Classical & Opera section.—Marc Geelhoed