Through his CSO tenure, Riccardo Muti reveals the poet in the perfectionist

At 81, Riccardo Muti retains a vitality of body, mind and spirit that a musician half his age might envy.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Like a benediction on one of orchestral music’s most successful unions, the vaunted esteem and admiration shared by Riccardo Muti and the musicians of his Chicago Symphony Orchestra will hover over their June performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s towering masterpiece, Missa solemnis.

These three concerts June 23-25 by the CSO and the Chicago Symphony Chorus not only will mark the end of their momentous journey through Beethoven but, crucially, will draw a double bar on the Italian maestro’s lucky 13 seasons as their music director.

It promises to be a bittersweet occasion.

But if you assume this valedictory ascent to the Beethovenian summit also signals a grand ride into the sunset for the renowned Italian conductor, you don’t know Muti. “Retirement,” he once told me, furrowing his noble Neapolitan brow, “is a word that I hate.”

For he is not bidding addio to the Chicago Symphony, much less to the podium — he is merely catching his breath before moving on to the next musical challenge, somewhere in the world.

One of the great privileges of my 41-year career on the Chicago aisle has been to witness at close hand hundreds of Muti performances with the CSO, in Chicago and on tour in Europe. Allow me to share my perspective on his impact on the orchestra, the city and on the global village of music.

At 81, the Maestro retains a vitality of body, mind and spirit a musician half his age might envy. His appetite for breaking new musical ground remains hardly less keen than in 1969, when the Naples-born Muti, then all of 26, sprang to international attention as the newly named principal conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

At 81, Riccardo Muti retains a vitality of body, mind and spirit a musician half his age might envy.

All the same, the extraordinary relationship he would forge with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over the decades began with baby steps.

It started in June 1973 at the Ravinia Festival, where Muti led his first concert with the CSO. At 31, the gifted young conductor was already making a name for himself in European musical circles, even if he had yet to become a household word in America.

Fast forward 34 years to September 2007, when the CSO, narrowing its search for a new music director, invited him back for a month-long residency.

Ostensibly these concerts were to prepare repertory for a nine-concert European tour he was scheduled to lead with the CSO; for all practical purposes, they were an extended audition for Muti, who had not conducted the orchestra downtown since March 1975. (The intervening decades had seen his star rise with major podium appointments and engagements in London, Vienna, Berlin, Philadelphia, La Scala/Milan and elsewhere.)

The charismatic Italian immediately found kindred spirits in Chicago’s band of orchestral virtuosos, as did they in him, while the audience response was a marketer’s dream. None of this was lost on the management. Less than a year later, in May 2008, then-CSO Association President Deborah (Card) Rutter announced him as the orchestra’s 10th music director. He took up the position officially in September 2010.

The honeymoon continues to this day.

Long before Muti started his tenure at the Chicago Symphony, the orchestra, of course, had been widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost. But Muti the inveterate orchestra builder would not stop with simply making a great ensemble even greater. Under him, the CSO stands on the world stage as a more eloquent orchestra — an ensemble in which sound and style, brilliance and warmth, power and lyricism, are more firmly conjoined than perhaps ever before.

For his first program as music director in 2010, Riccardo Muti led the CSO in the Concert for Chicago at Millennium Park.

©Todd Rosenberg Photography

Just as Muti has made the CSO a better-balanced, more singing, more giving instrument, so has the orchestra refined his manner of interpretation — taking the edge off a style of music-making that, in previous circumstances, could feel rather rigid, driven, overly controlled. It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that making music with the Chicago Symphony has brought out the poet in the perfectionist.

I was first struck by Muti’s painstaking attention to musical detail as far back as the early 1980s, when I attended some of his rehearsals and concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the storied band he had recently inherited from Eugene Ormandy. It was generally agreed that, by the end of his dozen seasons in Philadelphia, an orchestra that had grown rather lax was back in fighting trim.

It took hardly more than a couple of Muti seasons for one to realize that he was accomplishing similar minor miracles with the CSO. The orchestra was playing with greater flexibility, warmth and yes, soul, than it had displayed in years. Nothing they did together smacked of workaday routine or careless preparation. Ever curious, Muti would grow his repertoire considerably during his time here, especially with regard to new and recent American music.

His exacting standards and searching interpretative intelligence now have become as emblematic as his flying Lisztian mane (his black hair now tinged with gray), his deep crouches on the podium during soft passages, his baton slicing the air in ecstatic arcs.

Muti’s reputation as a Toscanini-like strict constructionist — honoring the composer’s intentions by adhering strictly to the letter of the score — had preceded him to the Chicago Symphony. The remarkable thing is how much more willing he became to bend the doctrine of come scritto (Italian for “as written”) over the course of preparing a vast and diverse repertoire here. For Muti, fidelity to urtext values now appears to be a means to an end much more than an end in itself.

The abiding respect and affection that the musicians of the CSO have for Muti extends, of course, well beyond the quality of their performances they deliver for him. Through his various accidents and illnesses (including two bouts of COVID-19) and the resulting cancellations of concerts, they have been at his side. He has stood by them as well — literally — joining striking players on the picket line in 2019 when a labor action silenced the orchestra for nearly seven weeks.

A Muti rehearsal is far less an imposition of a music director’s imperious will than an enlightened artistic dialogue. The Maestro presides over CSO rehearsals like an affable if no-nonsense primus inter pares. Errors are quickly corrected, differences of interpretative opinion swiftly resolved. Muti keeps the larger musical picture firmly in everyone’s sights. Whenever the mood threatens to turn too serious, Muti the master of group psychology is ever at the ready to crack jokes and spin anecdotes, leavening gravitas with smiles and laughter.

Big Verdi works have proved central to his success in Chicago: Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff.

Space prevents me from citing my many personal favorites among the countless Muti/CSO concerts I have heard over the years. Pressed to name the performances that have moved me the most, however, I must give a shout-out to his revelatory series of stage and concert works by his beloved Giuseppe Verdi. These were Muti in excelsis.

Beginning with the fervent performances of the Verdi Requiem he led as music director designate here in 2009, big Verdi works have proved central to his success in Chicago. Think of his triumphant accounts of the composer’s three operas adapted from Shakespeare plays: Otello (2011), Macbeth (2013) and Falstaff (2016). Scrupulously prepared and brilliantly executed, these performances breathed with musical insight and dramatic immediacy; it was as if Verdi had composed these masterpieces expressly for Muti and company.

Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Verdi's "Falstaff," featuring soprano Eleanora Buratto (far left) as Alice Ford and baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

You cannot talk about Muti the musician without considering Muti the humanitarian; with the Maestro, the roles are practically interchangeable.

It has long been his conviction that great music has the power to speak to society’s better angels, that music can be a powerful force to ease political tensions, to bring people, particularly those of opposing viewpoints, more closely together.

To that end, he has worked tirelessly to make the music and the outreach capabilities of the CSO available to all. The splendid free community concerts Muti and musicians have presented in churches, schools and parks throughout the metropolitan area have lifted lives, making untold numbers of new friends for the orchestra, along with new converts to classical music.

Muti’s interactive recitals for incarcerated youth at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville prompted the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute to undertake similar projects in partnership with specialists working at Chicago-area juvenile justice facilities. These outreach efforts came at a crucial juncture in the history of the city and are perhaps even more necessary at a time when classical music has been marginalized as perhaps never before. (Never, ever, confuse great music with “entertainment” in front of the Maestro.)

In sum, Riccardo Muti’s countless contributions to the cultural life of the city remain a matter of proud public record. He has left the orchestra with a rich musical legacy — a legacy that will long resonate far beyond Chicago. His many triumphs on tour with the CSO have made millions of friends for the orchestra, nationally and internationally. The horrid and erroneous stereotype of Chicago as a crime-ridden metropolis has been obliterated by the eloquence — there’s that word again — of their music-making.

The podium’s youngest octogenarian vows to continue making music “as long as I am in good health and my brain is still alive.”  

Muti, in fact, isn’t wasting any time doing just that. He is scheduled to return to the CSO for three weeks of concerts in September, including two dates at Carnegie Hall, this time as an honored guest conductor. The following month, he will journey to Sarajevo for a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of that war-torn city’s orchestra. He will maintain his 50-year-plus relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, while continuing to preside over two institutions he founded: the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and the Italian Opera Academy, a training program for young conductors based near his home in Ravenna, Italy.

With that, let me say: Arrivederci, Maestro Muti. Non perdiamoci di vista. Goodbye for now, Maestro Muti. Don’t be a stranger.