An Exceptional Partnership
Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is consistently hailed as one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Since 2010, the preeminent conductor Riccardo Muti has served as its 10th music director. Don't miss their upcoming performances on January 30, January 31 with pianist Yefim Bronfman, and February 1 with a performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.
It is Sunday in Chicago, a day off for Riccardo Muti. Nonetheless, there is a busy day ahead. Muti will have a piano rehearsal with four singers from Lyric Opera of Chicago who will accompany him and a brass quintet of Chicago Symphony Orchestra players to a juvenile detention center later in the day to give a concert, “bringing music to those who cannot come to the concert hall.” An evening off a few days earlier had seen him work with the musicians of an area community orchestra.
After a welcoming embrace and his trademark double-cheek kiss, Muti sits down to reflect on more than 40 years of performing at Carnegie Hall.
“What I recall even now is the blossoming atmosphere of the sound.”
“You know,” Muti says, “there are very few concert halls or opera houses in the world that have a history and charisma that you feel immediately when you go in—that you are in one of the true temples of music. Carnegie Hall is such a place, not only for the conductors and soloists who make music there, but a prestigious hall in the minds of music lovers of the world. When you enter it for the first time, you feel the history of the Hall and the importance of being there. It’s a special occasion, like the first time you go into the Musikverein in Vienna or Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow.”
One feeling Muti will never forget was when he conducted at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1975 with The Philadelphia Orchestra, when Eugene Ormandy was music director. “What I recall even now is the blossoming atmosphere of the sound.”
Muti and Ormandy had crossed paths in Florence in 1970 when Muti was music director of the Maggio Musicale. “Ormandy arrived one hour before his rehearsal with The Philadelphia Orchestra—they were on tour together,” Muti recalls, “and he watched and heard me rehearse from the edge of the curtain for half an hour. ‘Who is this young man?’ he asked. He invited me to come to Philadelphia and guest conduct, which also included doing a series of concerts on tour with him, some of which went to New York. That became my American debut and was a very generous gesture on Ormandy’s part.”
In 1976, Ormandy appointed Muti as the first and only principal guest conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra during his long tenure, and Muti would succeed him as music director upon Ormandy’s 1980 retirement. Muti conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall annually from 1975 until he stepped down as music director in 1992.
“There was a wonderful review in The New York Times by [Harold C.] Schonberg, a very tough critic. The title made me very proud: ‘Master of the baton’,” Muti says in a slow and low voice, leaning his head back and striking a serious conducting pose in a self-deprecating manner, reminiscing about his annual visits to Carnegie Hall with The Philadelphia Orchestra.
At the time, Muti was also principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, which he conducted at Carnegie Hall in farewell concerts in 1980, shortly after he had become music director in Philadelphia.
“Those were my last concerts with the Philharmonia,” Muti recalls, “and something happened where some of the instruments did not arrive in time. To help their new music director, The Philadelphia Orchestra sent over double basses, and I can remember seeing the cases backstage with Philadelphia Orchestra written on them. I was so touched and proud!”
In the years between 1992 and when Muti became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010, he appeared at Carnegie Hall regularly with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whom he has conducted annually since 1971. Even the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, the famous Milan opera house which Muti led from 1986 through 2005, came to Carnegie Hall under Muti in 1992 for two performances of the Verdi Requiem.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Muti will be leading for a third series of programs at Carnegie Hall this January and February, also has a long history with the Hall, going back to a concert conducted by CSO founder Theodore Thomas in 1898, when both the Hall and the CSO were a mere seven years old. Thomas’s successor Frederick Stock led the CSO at Carnegie Hall in 1921 and again in 1940; Rafael Kubelík in 1953; Fritz Reiner in 1958; and Jean Martinon in 1964, 1966, and 1967.
But it was Sir Georg Solti who inaugurated an annual CSO presence at Carnegie Hall from 1970 through 1981, more or less alternating years since—a tradition that remained through the Daniel Barenboim years and during the Bernard Haitink / Pierre Boulez transition years right through the Muti era.
Muti has become fascinated with the history of the CSO and is very aware of his unique place as its first Italian music director. “When you see that the first programs were written in German,” Muti says, “many of the musicians were German and many of their teachers were German, so there is a tradition of Germanic culture that has been kept here. Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock were Germans, Fritz Reiner and Solti were Hungarians, Kubelík was Czech, so the history of the orchestra—culturally speaking—has been in the hands of German-oriented conductors. With Solti, they not only did German operas, but Italian operas of Mozart and Verdi. This gave the orchestra an aspect of cantabile, a lyrical style of playing. I think an orchestra that only performs symphonic repertoire is, in a way, deprived of the possibility of expressing more lyricism. When I did Otello with the Chicago Symphony—which was the first thing we brought to Carnegie Hall together—in many ways it was new for the orchestra, since it had been many years before when Solti had done it with Luciano Pavarotti. The orchestra responded in a way that was extraordinary. It means that the orchestra is versatile: They can play fantastic Strauss, fantastic Wagner, and the Italian repertoire very well. That makes the orchestra very unique, certainly in this country.”
While there might have been a time when the CSO would start planning a season around what the orchestra wanted to bring to Carnegie Hall or on international tours, Muti says he feels no need to do that today. “This was always a great orchestra,” he says, “but it was very local, which is why Solti, in particular, saw how crucial it was to bring the orchestra outside of Chicago.”
He also makes a point to look at the concert season in its entirety and how his choices can benefit both the orchestra and the audience. “During the season,” he says, “you want an arc of the history of music going from Baroque to contemporary music. This is important for the public, to be in touch with different aspects of the history of music. I prefer to have an entire view of the horizon of music. Every year, an orchestra should have the opportunity to play music from different centuries, from the past to today.”
For these Carnegie Hall concerts, Muti is particularly proud of the fact that two Scriabin symphonies— Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem”—will be spotlighted on different programs, as he believes that Scriabin is a neglected master. “Like Mahler, who was not popular for many years, Scriabin’s time will come,” he says. “And doing these works in this special hall with which both myself and the orchestra have such a long and rich history—separately and now together—makes these concerts even more of a special occasion.”
—Dennis Polkow is an award-winning Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Musical America, and The New York Times, among others.