Conductor Riccardo Muti on an ambitious orchestral exchange

The Italian conductor Riccardo Muti gave a concert in Tehran last week and took a contingent of Italian musicians with him. Two days later, the return visit took place, with Iranian musicians playing in the Pala De André in Ravenna last Saturday night.

Tehran was an odd locale, you might think, for the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and former music director of Milan’s La Scala, who next month conducts Aida at the Salzburg Festival. But for 20 consecutive years the Ravenna Festival’s Roads of Friendship project has presented concerts around the world, often in places afflicted by hardship or political tension. In such locations as Beirut, Moscow, Yerevan and Istanbul, as well as New York, Cairo, Damascus, Nairobi and Tokyo, Muti has presided over every one of them.

Within hours of his return from Tehran, Muti spoke to me at his home in Ravenna, the Italian city where he lives with his wife Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, president of the Ravenna Festival and a major force behind Roads of Friendship.

Their house in the city centre is approached via a lush tropical garden not visible from the street. In his vast library on the second floor, Muti showed me autograph sketches for Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra as well as an autograph letter from each composer; in the Wagner letter, “he criticises German conductors”, Muti says with a smile of contentment.

Switching to the Roads of Friendship project, Muti, 75, acknowledges that it “deserves more attention” than it has received “because of the meaning it has had for troubled cities”. For the first concert, held in Sarajevo following the end of the Bosnian war, “we had to use military aircraft because commercial airports were closed. Pictures show our [musicians] strapped in planes like paratroopers. Members of the Sarajevo Symphony were invited to join our musicians, but many had lost instruments in the devastation, so we furnished them. Six thousand people came to our concert held in a stadium.”

Local ensembles always participate in Roads of Friendship concerts. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the New York Philharmonic took part in concerts along with players drawn from Europe’s finest orchestras. Yet even when local participants are of lesser calibre, pleasant surprises can occur. “In Nairobi we had kids singing ‘Va pensiero’ [the famous chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco] better than a lot of Europeans.”

Many concerts have featured orchestral music rather than vocal. “If the music doesn’t have words,” Muti says, “no words can be misunderstood. Music that brings a message of love and friendship can do more than the diplomats. I don’t try to analyse the particular situation — I’m a musician, not a politician.”

Yet he mentions a concert in Trieste attended by the presidents of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, regions that had simmering differences going back to the second world war. After the concert, Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s then president, phoned to offer thanks for the concert’s “very positive effect”.

Political realities made the Iranian visit unusually difficult to pull off, but positive involvement from the Iranian and Italian culture ministers prevailed. Tehran’s Vahdat Hall, created to western standards in the 1960s, when the city had a thriving performing arts scene, was designated for an all-Verdi programme. Muti enlisted the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, which he founded in 2004, with selected players from Italy’s leading opera houses, including La Scala, the chorus of the Teatro Municipale in Piacenza, and four soloists — tenors Piero Pretti and Giovanni Sala, baritone Luca Salsi and bass Riccardo Zanellato.

With such a line-up, the July 6 concert constituted the most significant display of western musical talent in Iran since at least 1975, when Herbert von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic there. On the Iranian side was the Tehran Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which was disbanded under the hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, but was resurrected two years ago. Its ranks include both men and women; the visiting Italian women players were required to cover their heads. The soloists were all men for the simple reason that appearing as an opera soloist is considered unacceptable for women under Islamic law.

Complete opera performances are also in effect proscribed. Iranians, both performers and listeners, must have found the extracts from Verdi’s rich middle-period operas — I vespri siciliani, Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, La forza del destino and the Paris revision of Macbeth — to be revelatory, especially in interpretations by the world’s foremost Verdi conductor. Muti says a special aura prevailed at the dress rehearsal, held before a capacity audience that included many students. “There was a silence: not the silence of people falling asleep but of people fully engaged in music.”

Muti describes a potentially awkward moment at the concert when, during the final applause, he shook hands with first-desk string players, a routine practice in western orchestras. An Iranian woman who played second violin demurred. “Women are not allowed to have contact with men in public,” Muti explains, adding that “she smiled and was very gracious about it.” When the concert was repeated in Ravenna two nights later, with the Iranian musicians making a reciprocal visit to Italy, Muti offered her the bouquet he was given later to tumultuous applause. This time she accepted.

The Ravenna concert proved to be an exhilarating experience, fuelled by Muti’s achievement in forging exacting performances from disparate musicians and the epochal nature of this exercise in international co-operation.

Muti hopes the collaboration will spur new interest by Iranians in their cultural heritage. “The new president, Hassan Rouhani, has an open vision toward culture, which is so important in the country’s history,” he says. Muti’s forthcoming Aida has an Iranian director, the New York-based visual artist and film-maker Shirin Neshat, although she is persona non grata in Iran for her treatment of feminist issues.

Their Aida will stress, Muti says, “intimacy, not the Egypt of postcards. Aida is about people from different cultures, religions and societies — just what we’ve been talking about.

Ravenna Festival will announce the next Roads of Friendship destination in the autumn, but Muti has a long-term goal: “I want to take the Chicago Symphony to Tehran.” It may sound impossible, but “if Iran took musicians from Italy,” he asks, “why not? This is one of the world’s greatest orchestras and — yes, I’ll say it — the best one in the United States!”

George Loomis, Financial Times, July 15, 2017

Photo Silvia Lelli