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THE CLASSICAL TRAVELER | Riccardo Muti and the Critics

By Paul E. Robinson on July 20, 2014

Muti with members of MCANA: Photo by Todd Rosenberg
Muti with members of MCANA: Photo by Todd Rosenberg

[pl_blockquote cite=”Riccardo Muti (2014)”]
At my age I don’t care what critics write anymore but I do care about presenting Italian opera the way the composer intended and I do care about using music to bring people together.

The Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) held its annual meeting in Chicago this year between June 17-19. The featured concerts were two performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) led by its music director Riccardo Muti. In the first two articles in this series of three, I reported on these excellent concerts. As part of the MCANA activities, the group of about 30 critics also attended a rehearsal led by Muti, followed by a Q and A session with the illustrious Italian maestro. This session turned out to be a memorable experience.

With the members of MCANA, Muti was initially somewhat defensive and prosecutorial; perhaps he felt the need to establish who was boss when members of the CSO were behind him on the stage. After the orchestra members had left and Muti came down off the stage to greet the  critics at close quarters – several hugs for members of the local press – the Italian conductor was much more relaxed and friendly. For over an hour, he stood amongst the critics speaking his mind and answering questions with amusing stories and thoughtful analysis.

Muti on “Vegetarians” and “Fundamentalists” of Musical Style

Riccardo Muti will be 73 next month and on the evidence of what we saw in Chicago, he appears healthy and full of energy. The same could not be said when he took up his post in 2010. He suffered a series of illnesses that had him canceling more concerts than he conducted in Chicago. There was some doubt whether he would be able to continue. Fortunately, these medical misfortunes are very much in the past and Muti has become a beloved figure for the members of the Chicago Symphony and for the Chicago public.

Riccardo Muti has had, to put it mildly, a major career. He led La Scala for 19 years; he has been music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra; and he was on the short list to succeed Herbert von Karajan as head of the Berlin Philharmonic. That post went to his contemporary and sometime rival Claudio Abbado.

In 1991, Norman Lebrecht painted a portrait of Muti in The Maestro Myth that emphasized how seriously he took his work, while making clear that Muti was also far more extroverted than the low-key Abbado. Muti’s great mission then, as it is now, was to preserve and disseminate Italian operas, exactly as their composers intended. This meant removing all the excesses introduced by egocentric tenors such as Pavarotti: if there are no high C’s or fermatas on high C’s written by the composer, singers in Muti-conducted opera performances will not be allowed to add them. Period! In other words, Muti is dedicated to doing for 19th Century Italian opera what the historically-informed specialists have done for 18th Century music. How ironic, then, that in the session with our critics group in Chicago, Muti saved his most vitriolic comments for these folks; Nikolaus Harnoncourt was singled out as the worst offender.

Muti had the critics in fits of laughter as he imitated Pavarotti stretching the top note on “Vincerò” in the aria “Nessun Dorma” to interminable lengths. He also ridiculed the sound produced by members of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir in Vienna – Harnoncourt’s favorite chorus – as totally sexless and nonsensical in Bach’s B minor Mass. “Bach had nine children,” Muti shouted. He even resorted to scatological images to remind us that Bach loved nothing better than playing the organ – his own and the one in his church. The original instrument conductors are the “vegetarians of music,” Muti declared. “They are the fundamentalists.”

But aren’t conductors like Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner simply doing for Bach and Mozart what Muti is doing for Verdi? Surely they are all trying to figure out what the composer intended and to give historically accurate performances. While Muti didn’t specifically address this question, he would undoubtedly have argued that the “fundamentalists” go too far, and often leave out the most human elements of musical expression.

The Maestro  on “Historically Informed” Performance Practice

Muti’s views on performance practice became the focus of the session with the critics when I asked him about his approach to the Schubert symphonies. Having heard him rehearse and conduct Schubert over the past several days, it was clear to me that his considered approach was very much in the tradition of conductors such as Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. Some would call it old-fashioned. I suggested to him that much work has been done on Schubert in the past 25 years and many scholars and conductors believe Schubert should be played in a manner best described as “historically informed.”

Muti responded by saying that while no one really knows how this music would have been played in Schubert’s time, we do have some powerful evidence. It is the way the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) plays today. The VPO’s style of playing has been carefully and deliberately preserved by the players themselves over the past 200 years. Muti noted that he has been working with the VPO for more than 40 years. Players change. They continue to come and go, but the VPO style of playing remains the same. The current players are the teachers of the next generation, and so on. For Muti, this means that we need look no further than the current incarnation of the Vienna Philharmonic to know how Schubert was played in 1820. Toscanini famously said that “tradition is the last bad performance.” Obviously, Muti has a more positive view of the meaning of “tradition,” especially where the Vienna Philharmonic is concerned.

Muti also noted that the second performance of Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung was conducted by Salieri, with an orchestra and chorus numbering nearly 1,000, suggesting that for early music specialists to state unequivocally that classical symphonies need to be played by small orchestras is misleading. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were often limited by the numbers of players available, but welcomed the opportunity to hear their music played by large orchestras.

For the record, during the two concerts I heard during my visit to Chicago, Muti conducted Schubert’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 5 and 6 with the CSO and they demonstrated careful preparation and genuine love of the music. Muti used an orchestra of about 50 players. There were certainly echoes of Bruno Walter but there was also a lightness in the phrasing and the bowing and a restraint in the vibrato that suggested Muti has paid more attention to the “fundamentalists” than he lets on. Timpanist David Herbert even brought along a set of drums that wouldn’t have been out of place in Schubert’s orchestra.

Furthering World Peace Through Musical Dialogue

Muti’s other “mission” in life is to use music to further the cause of world peace. He founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in 2004 to give concerts in places where there have been recent hostilities or people suffering. Muti and the orchestra visit prisons and hospitals, and places such as Sarajevo, Yerevan, Damascus and Nairobi. The project is called Le vie dell’Amicizia (The Paths of Friendship). Other conductors have committed themselves to peace projects – Leonard Bernstein, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim come to mind – but in Muti’s case the mission is usually carried out away from the major musical capitals of the world. Muti goes where famous conductors are seldom seen or heard. He even finds time to visit prisons in the Chicago area.

In a lifetime of watching great conductors, I have seldom met a maestro of Muti’s stature who seemed so genuinely interested in what mere critics had to say. At his age, he doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. He certainly doesn’t have to ingratiate himself with several dozen critics who will have little effect on his reputation or his legacy. For those of us fortunate enough to be in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall this wonderful June afternoon, Muti left an indelible impression on us as a dedicated musician and a caring multi-dimensional human being.

Paul E. Robinson

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”


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