In Chicago, the Riccardo Muti Era Draws to a Close; The conductor will end his 13-year tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June, leaving behind an expertly honed ensemble and a legacy of splendid performances.

– David Mermelstein | May 16, 2023

The conclusion of Riccardo Muti’s tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 10th music director at the end of this season inevitably elicits varied feelings in a place where civic pride still matters. Many regard his 13 years here as among this much-lauded ensemble’s finest eras. Others prefer to see his departure as an opportunity for someone other than a European man (he is resolutely Italian) to occupy one of the world’s most prestigious podiums. Even at this point, Mr. Muti is not a Windy City institution—though he is certainly beloved. Like Daniel Barenboim, who preceded him from 1991 to 2006, Mr. Muti was already hugely famous when he accepted the orchestra’s offer to take what was then an embarrassingly vacant post. And unlike Mr. Barenboim’s predecessor, the legendary Georg Solti, who served from 1969 to 1991, Mr. Muti is not even principally associated with this city. His ties to Milan, Rome, London, Vienna and even Philadelphia are no less central than Chicago to his biography.

Yet Mr. Muti, though extraordinarily vigorous, will be 82 years old in July, and—as he insisted when we chatted last week—this post will be his last as a music director. He has, to be sure, remade this mighty 132-year-old ensemble. Honed in the middle of the 20th century by Fritz Reiner, a dour Hungarian whom Mr. Muti reveres, and then by Solti, also Hungarian, into America’s most muscular symphony orchestra, it was coarsened by Mr. Barenboim as he furthered the group’s raw power. By contrast, Mr. Muti has immeasurably refined the CSO’s character, making it an institution replete with virtues and, at least to these ears, without musical failings. In addition, Mr. Muti’s ability to impart new energy to even the most familiar scores helps make his programs so compelling.

True, the conductor did inherit a roster of musicians for whom most orchestras would mortgage their halls (two still date from Reiner’s day), but he has supplemented that base with 27 of his own hires. So though there happily remains a historic “Chicago sound,” this ensemble now also claims a “Muti sound,” one that marries pure yet characterful tones potently expressed with a humanizing, even sexy, charm.

The orchestra’s unique gifts were on full display this past weekend on a bill, repeated Tuesday, that included Wagner’s familiar overture to “Tannhäuser” and Rachmaninoff’s hyper-romantic Symphony No. 2—the latter a work I heard performed memorably and meticulously by the Boston Symphony Orchestra just three weeks ago. Yet even against such stiff competition, Mr. Muti’s account was. irresistibly luscious and extraordinarily well-balanced.

Similar examples of such furiously brilliant and incisive music-making have been almost commonplace, whether at home or on tour. I still vividly recall a concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in 2015, at which, before the downbeat, a colleague and I whispered our reservations about hearing this warhorse yet again, only for us both to be stunned by the nuances and supple musical force Mr. Muti drew from the players.

Some will chide the conductor for not programming more new music, but such complaints overlook the bevy of young(ish) composers he selected for residencies at the orchestra. Naturally, the commissions aren’t all bound for the canon, but the choices are impressive, starting with Mason Bates and Anna Clyne and continuing through Samuel Adams, Elizabeth Ogonek, Missy Mazzoli, and, currently, Jessie Montgomery, whose genial “Transfigure to Grace” just had its premiere, sharing the most recent program with Wagner and Rachmaninoff.

Mr. Muti’s final concert as music director comes on June 27, when he leads the CSO in a free outdoor concert at Millennium Park—a sort of farewell gift to the city, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 the main draw. Before that come a nearly all-Mozart program (May 18-23); a grab-bag of Mozart, Respighi and William Kraft (May 25-27); Lalo Schifrin’s Tuba Concerto and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (June 15- 17); and, in a parting gesture to Orchestra Hall, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (June 23-25).

Music lovers who can’t make it to Chicago by then needn’t shed tears quite yet. For in the absence of any announcement regarding his replacement, Mr. Muti has already agreed to conduct the orchestra in its initial concerts this fall, as well as lead the CSO in New York when it opens Carnegie Hall’s season on Oct. 4 and 5. Beyond that, an 11-city tour of Europe is planned for January. So, for a while at least, the relationship won’t actually be that different. We all know it’s true: Breaking up is hard to do.

David Mermelstein, Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2023


CSO, Muti, Rachmaninoff add up to a glorious evening at the symphony

– Kyle MacMillan |  May 12, 2023

Maestro Riccardo Muti chose to perform the hourlong Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27, in full, and he made sure the energy never flagged and the orchestra’s focus never wavered.

The final countdown to the June conclusion of Riccardo Muti’s 13 seasons as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Zell Music Director began Thursday evening as he returned to Orchestra Hall for his penultimate residency in that position.

This program, which continues for two more performances, boasted no flashy soloists, and there was no need of them. Instead, the audience had a chance to just zero in and appreciate the veteran conductor and an already-great orchestra that he has carefully honed and stretched.

To grasp what he has accomplished during his tenure, one needed only hear the CSO’s thrilling take on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27, which culminated the concert with playing at the highest possible level.

Some conductors present this work with certain trims, because it can seem inflated and overly long. But Muti chose to perform the hourlong symphony in full, and he made sure the energy never flagged and the orchestra’s focus never wavered.

What the conductor delivered was not so much an interpretation imposed on the music, but more a fresh, organic realization of this music, paying due attention, as has been said before, to even the most minute contrasts in tempo, dynamics and texture.

During a rehearsal earlier in the day for this concert, Muti made the point that it was important when playing this work not to add sugar to already sweetened coffee. That wise approach could be heard particularly in the second movement, where he underlined the sense of edginess and unsettledness and nothing was smoothed over.

Perhaps most important, Rachmaninoff’s glorious melodies and voluptuous harmonies, especially in the slow third movement, provided an ideal showcase for every section of the orchestra. None impressed more than the orchestra’s strings, from the handsome, rumbling basses at the work’s onset to the plush, soaring violins.

There were also plenty of opportunities for individual instruments to shine, including guest bass clarinetist Pavel Vinnitsky and English hornist Scott Hostetler. Deserving special note was principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, who in his extended, pensive solos has never sounded better.

Anchoring the evening’s first half was the world premiere of “Transfigure to Grace,” Suite for Orchestra by Jessie Montgomery, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence who has recently moved from New York to Chicago.

The 41-year-old composer has established herself as one of the top American composers of our time with an original musical voice and solid sense of craftmanship, qualities that were both amply in evidence in this second of three commissions from the orchestra.

“Transfigure to Grace” emerged from a chamber-music score that Montgomery composed in 2019 for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Titled “Passage,” it commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to America.

This work, ably handled by Muti and the orchestra, is constructed of overlapping cross-currents of iterative melodic bits and rhythmic pulses with an emphasis on the off beats that gives everything a spare, slightly off-center feel. Offering the only extended sense of melody through much of the piece are mournful French horn solos, beautifully performed by Daniel Gingrich, associate principal French hornist, that serve as transitions between the sections.

Though strangely not discussed in the program notes, the final few minutes of this piece offer the kind of transfiguration and ultimately grace suggested by the work’s evocative title, as the music blends and becomes more reverential and mystical.

The program opened with Richard Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhäuser,” a famed opera that combines two legends and offers two different musical worlds. Felix Mendelssohn first presented the overture as a concert piece in 1846, and the CSO’s first music director, Theodore Thomas, programmed it during the ensemble’s first season in 1891-92.

Though summoning the necessary punch and urgency when called for, Muti and the orchestra offered a measured, unhurried and ultimately satisfying reading.

Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times, May 12, 2023


Maestro Riccardo Muti Still on Fire at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

– Hedy Weiss | May 17, 2023

Something magical happens when Maestro Riccardo Muti arrives on the podium at Orchestra Hall to lead the invariably superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

True, several of the guest conductors who have led the orchestra during the past season have overseen some superb performances. Muti, who in 2010 became the 10th music director of the CSO, is not “retiring” (a word he detests) but will officially end his tenure after several more programs in May and June, including three performances of Beethoven’s monumental “Missa solemnis” from June 23-25. He also will lead the CSO’s annual free “Concert for Chicago” (June 27 at 6:30 p.m.), which last year attracted an audience of 12,000 people. And he is already scheduled to lead the orchestra for three weeks of concerts this fall (Sept. 22-Oct. 8) and will, of course, be the toast of the CSO’s Symphony Ball on Sept. 24.

Muti no doubt also will make return visits as a guest conductor in coming seasons. But anyone in the audience for this past week’s superb concert of works by Richard Wagner, Jessie Montgomery (the CSO’s immensely gifted Mead-Composer-in-Residence) and Sergei Rachmaninov will surely be left wishing that the powers that be at the CSO had done everything possible to keep Muti on the podium as music director.

At the concert I attended Thursday evening, the maestro was in his usual rare form, moving with a dancer’s grace and eliciting a formidable clarity of sound and emotional intensity in three notably different yet alluring works.

Opening the program was the widely familiar overture to “Tannhauser,” Wagner’s 1845 opera about the poet/musician character of the title who falls in love with Venus, the pagan goddess of love, but ultimately yearns to return to his love in the human world.

While Wagner’s repugnant history as an anti-Semite comes to mind whenever his name appears on a program, there is no denying that the man was a remarkable composer. The opening passage to this overture alone — from the sound of the brass, to the lyrical passage of the bass section and cellos, to the addition of all the strings that builds to a monumental, yet richly singing sound — is emblematic of the way he could create a simultaneously lush and poetic atmosphere and seamlessly shift from a poetic passage to an intensely stormy and celebratory one. And in his own particular way, Muti subtly infused the piece with an Italian beauty.

Next came Montgomery’s ideally titled “Transfigure to Grace,” in the world premiere of a CSO commission. (Its earlier version took the form of a chamber music piece designed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and by the end of this performance all I could think of was that the Joffrey Ballet should tap a choreographer to create a work for the company set to this hauntingly beautiful concert version of the piece.)

It begins with what might be described as a beautiful warmup, with the high strings creating a sense of an echo in a breeze, an interesting use of the cellos and a series of rhythms and changes in mood and intensity that had Muti almost stamping his foot at one moment for emphasis in this work that is an intriguing mix of the classical and the modern.

A French horn solo, a blend of percussion and strings and an overall seamless mix of the rhythmic and melodic — at times pensive, at other times almost combative — creates an aura of change and uncertainty. And the composer’s intriguing use of each section of the orchestra generates a score rich in mood shifts and a true sensation of transfiguration. (Of note: Montgomery, a New York native, has gone through her own “transfiguration” by recently moving to Chicago.)

The second half of the concert was devoted to a magnificent performance of Rachmaninov’s massive, emotionally thrilling (and in a particular way most timely piece) “Symphony No. 2 in E Minor.” It was first performed in 1908, at a time when the composer/pianist was rising out of a personal depression, was unhappy with the political situation in Russia and left for Europe and the U.S.

The work opened with a deeply emotional sound by way of the French horn and strings before moving into a heightened sense of nervousness blended with a singing quality, with the sound growing powerfully and then retreating to a lyrical quietness in a series of waves that were capped by a big drum roll and a great surge of sound generating a sense of urgency and danger in the offing.

These radical shifts in mood — from a stormy roar, to the richly romantic intensity of the strings, to a big blast of sound that suggests something is coming — drive the work from start to finish, with a great use of the violins and violas in a furious chase, ravishing romantic passages, the use of percussive accents at certain moments and then a timely silence. And after all the excitement a romantic sequence begins and swells into feverish passion.

Throughout, the sweep of emotional transitions is wonderfully compelling. And in the work’s final movement there is a sense of joy and celebration, a fullness of sheer beauty, a sudden shift into an aura of fire and fury (and the clash of cymbals) and an exuberance that had Muti almost dancing in place as this symphony — a rapturous, thrilling, deeply emotional carousel of sound — came to an end and had the audience on its feet and applauding wildly.

Note: This program had its final performance Tuesday, May 16. Next up with the CSO and Muti will be three different programs highlighting the brilliance of several invaluable CSO musicians: concertmaster Robert Chen (on violin), David Herbert (principal timpani) and Gene Pokorny (principal tuba).

Hedy Weiss, WTTW, May 17, 2023


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

– John von Rhein | May 17, 2023

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

John von Rhein, CSO Experience, May 17, 2023


Mozart’s Serenade a glorious showcase for 13 CSO musicians and the singular Riccardo Muti

– Kyle MacMillan | May 19, 2023

The countdown to the June culmination of Riccardo Muti’s 13-year music directorship of the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra took a surprising turn Thursday evening with the first in a set four concerts.

To celebrate the end of such a significant era, it would be natural to expect the conductor and the
orchestra to present big, blockbuster works or attention-grabbing premieres like they did last week with a program that included Rachmaninoff’s massive Symphony No. 2.

But this week, Muti took just the opposite tack and went small. Really small. Indeed, the second-half centerpiece of this concert —Wolfgang Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major, K. 361/370a (“Gran Partita”) — featured just 13 musicians, and, in fact, wasn’t an orchestral work at all.

It was a commendably daring and unexpected repertoire choice, and it became abundantly evident at the end of the concert why Muti did it. He went around and shook the hand of each of the musicians and then stood not in front of them but side by side with them as they accepted the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

The message was clear. In addition to making these final weeks of the season a celebration of his tenure, Muti wanted to make sure they were also a celebration of the orchestra for which he obviously has great affection and respect.

There was another subtle message here as well, a fascinating linking of past and present that had to be more than a coincidence. Last week, the orchestra presented two works that had been played very early in the CSO’s history, and the same was true this week with the Serenade, which then music director Frederick Stock and orchestra presented for the first time in December 1914.

Put simply, this Serenade is an absolute masterpiece. Serenades were typically written for a wedding or some other event and were meant to be light, even a little frivolous in character. The exact origins of this seven-movement chamber piece are unclear, but what Mozart produced is a substantive, full-blown concert work.

Written in 1781 or 1782, this vibrant, eminently appealing piece shows Mozart at his imaginative best, with its sparkling melodies, ever-varied moods and rhythmic verve, especially in the sixth-movement Theme and Variations, which could be a compact work all in itself.

Most impressive, though, is Mozart’s creative and unlikely instrumentation, a kind of enlarged wind quintet including a double bass and two basset horns — rarely seen members of the clarinet family that are similar to alto clarinets but with a darker timbre. (They were played here with aplomb by assistant principal clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and J. Lawrie Bloom, making a guest appearance (following his retirement from the orchestra at the end of the 2019-2020 season.).

Rounding out the ensemble, seated at the front of the stage in a horse-shoe configuration, were two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets and four French horns, a mix that allows for unusual and ever-changing combination of instruments. Anchoring the ensemble were principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson and principal oboist William Welter, who were in top form here. The piece’s small scale allowed all 13 of these terrific musicians to be heard in a thrillingly, close-in way that is not usually possible.

This piece could certainly be performed without a conductor, but it no doubt helped having Muti (seated in keeping with the piece’s intimacy) to shape the overall arc and flow of the piece, offer cues as necessary and oversee the tempos and dynamics.

The rest of the program featured more standard fare, but modesty of scale reigned here as well, with Muti and a chamber-sized orchestra offering a spirited take on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. In keeping with the conductor’s apparent desire to showcase the orchestra, the soloist was the ensemble’s first-rate concertmaster, Robert Chen, who showed off his ample technique and smooth, honied tone in seemingly effortless fashion.

Opening the program was the compact Overture to Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa’s opera, “Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage),” which premiered two months after Mozart’s death in 1791.

Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times, May 19, 2023


Watch the photos:

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023


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