RICCARDO MUTI NAMED MUSIC DIRECTOR EMERITUS FOR LIFE BY
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ASSOCIATION
CHICAGO — The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) has announced that Riccardo Muti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s prominent 10th Music Director, has been named Music Director Emeritus for Life beginning in the 2023/24 season. Muti, who is currently in Chicago leading concerts that culminate his tenure as Music Director after 13 seasons of celebrated artistic partnership, will assume the new role in September and conduct two weeks of concerts in Chicago to open the CSO’s 133rd season, followed by two concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall to open their season on October 4 and 5. Muti will rejoin the Orchestra in January 2024 for three weeks of concerts during its first European Tour since 2020, with performances already announced in Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria and Italy. In the new role, Muti will maintain a close connection with the Orchestra with an additional six weeks of concerts already planned for the 2024/25 season – four in Chicago and two in tour performances to be announced – with annual weeks of concerts with the CSO in discussion for subsequent seasons.
Muti was recognized with the new artistic title during an onstage ceremony on June 23 at Orchestra Hall following the first of three performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis which mark his final subscription concerts as Music Director.
“I am honored to stay with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as their Music Director Emeritus for Life,” said Riccardo Muti. “Our artistic collaboration has been one of the great joys of my life and created deep bonds of friendship across my years in Chicago. I look forward to returning regularly to share great music with audiences in the city and on tour.”
“The inspired leadership and musicianship of Riccardo Muti has broadened worldwide acclaim for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during his distinguished tenure,” said CSOA Board Chair Mary Louise Gorno. “We express our endless gratitude to Maestro Muti for accepting this important role that will keep him close to the musicians of the Orchestra and extend a golden era of music making.”
CSOA President Jeff Alexander noted “Riccardo Muti has conducted the Orchestra in transformative performances in Chicago, across the country and around the world, creating musical experiences for audiences who will be forever changed. We are delighted that he has accepted our invitation to continue leading CSO concerts and maintaining artistic continuity and excellence for the musicians during this new chapter for the Orchestra.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Members’ Committee Chair James Smelser added, “The Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are extremely fortunate to have had Maestro Muti as our Music Director these past 13 seasons, and we look forward to continuing our wonderful music-making experiences with him as our Music Director Emeritus for Life. We are grateful to Maestro Muti for accepting this ongoing role to make music with us at the highest and most inspired level, and we will continue to treasure each and every concert.”
For Riccardo Muti, a Grand Sort-of-Finale in Chicago
The eminent maestro is ending an acclaimed 13-year run at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But with his successor not yet named, he’s sticking around.
Zachary Woolfe | June 17, 2023
The concert had ended, and Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony, was walking out of Orchestra Hall when he saw a banner in the lobby and stopped in his tracks.
“Muti Conducts the Grand Finale of the 2022-23 Season,” it read. This was in May, with just a month of programs to go — culminating in performances of Beethoven’s mighty “Missa Solemnis,” June 23-25, which will mark the end of Muti’s 13-year directorship.
So when Muti, 81, began railing about the banner to his tiny entourage, it seemed like he must be joking: There could hardly be a grander finale to his acclaimed tenure. But it quickly became obvious that his anger was real.
“I told them not to write ‘grand finale,’” he said, grimacing. “It’s a finale? And then I’m back in September?”
The next morning, the offending banner was gone. His frustration was mostly silly, of course. The orchestra was just being factual in ginning up a little excitement at a climactic moment in the six-decade career of one of the most eminent figures in classical music.
But Muti had a point. Since his successor has not yet been named, he will be continuing as a kind of shadow music director next season, and possibly longer. Leaving — yet not entirely leaving — on a high note, with the adoration of Chicago’s musicians and audiences, he has been sensitive that his farewell will seem like a grand anticlimax when he returns, just three months from now, for the fall opening concerts and a trip to Carnegie Hall.
“‘He’s here again,’ they will say,” Muti speculated in an interview. “‘He’s back!’ It’s too much.”
“I don’t blame him,” said Helen Zell, the former chair of the orchestra’s board, who endowed Muti’s music director position. “Just as courting him was a big, long process, the exit is just as challenging.”
Between the complicated beginning and ending, though, Muti’s time in Chicago has been widely reckoned an enormous success. His performances of a broad swath of repertoire — his signature Italian operas in concert, Beethoven symphonies, world premieres, rarities of the past, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, Florence Price, Philip Glass — have been pristine yet intense, powerful yet graceful.
“He took the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra and made it even greater,” Jeff Alexander, the orchestra’s president, said. “The sound now is really spectacular — in a more mellifluous, mellow, lyrical way.”
His departure is about more than inevitable turnover at an important ensemble, said Pierre Audi, the stage director and impresario. It’s a milestone as the generation of leaders born before the end of World War II passes — and, with it, the old-school conception of the commanding, protecting maestro.
“Muti will leave Chicago, and that’s it,” Audi said. “It’s the beginning of the end.”
Muti was born, as he loves to tell people, in Naples and raised in Puglia. His longest-held position was nearly 20 years at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and his most lasting affiliation has been with the Vienna Philharmonic, which names no chief conductor. (He will lead that orchestra on the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony next spring.) He is European to the core.
Yet perhaps his most triumphant stints have been with two American ensembles: Chicago and, through the 1980s, the Philadelphia Orchestra. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he was an upstart in his 30s, taking over after four decades of Eugene Ormandy.
Ormandy had built an ensemble that was thick and lush, particularly in its famous strings, and he bathed every work in a uniform butteriness: The composer served the sound. Muti aimed to reverse that dynamic, creating distinct styles for Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky — adding a flexibility that took the group, as the violinist Barbara Govatos said, “from the Cadillac of orchestras to the Ferrari.”
He surprised the still-enamored musicians when he left in the early 1990s, partly because of the difficulty balancing his work with La Scala and partly because plans for a new hall in Philadelphia were stagnating. As he focused on Milan, Muti said he had no interest in another music director position in America, with all the attendant extramusical responsibilities.
The New York Philharmonic nevertheless thought — twice — that it was on the verge of hiring him. Chicago ended up luckier after Daniel Barenboim announced in 2004 that he was leaving. Watching Muti conduct in Paris early the next year, Deborah Rutter, then president in Chicago, told a colleague, “If we can do it, this is the one it should be.”
“There is a sort of electrical current to the energy he brings to his music-making,” Rutter said recently. “And that sort of hyper-focused energy is something I would describe as being very Chicago-like.”
Muti’s relationship with La Scala was foundering, but he hadn’t appeared with the Chicago Symphony since the 1970s. He and Rutter agreed he would come in 2006, but he canceled, which was crushing. She lured him back with dates the next fall, along with a European tour.
“I was too tired to travel, to start a new adventure,” Muti said. “But when I came back here, immediately it was something that happened between me and the orchestra.”
The critic Andrew Patner, describing those 2007 performances, wrote, “By the second date, the Italian maestro almost seemed like an old friend.” After the tour, Muti received a box of handwritten letters from the players, a personal touch that helped seal the deal
“There was an ecstatic reception he had when he was in Chicago, from the press and the public,” said Zarin Mehta, then the president of the New York Philharmonic. “He was treated with total respect in New York, but not with the ecstatic admiration he gets in Chicago.”
Barenboim had relaxed the ensemble’s sound from the muscular, stentorian days of Georg Solti, but it still had a resolute Germanic style. Under Muti, the orchestra has still been able to produce, say, a Beethoven’s Fifth of blistering force, but he generally wanted something more Italianate.
“I found a great orchestra,” he said, “but not balanced. Everyone was speaking about the brass. The strings were a little too — not harsh, but hard. No perfume. And the woodwinds, they had good players, but no one spoke about the woodwinds. And there is another thing: I needed them to sing.”
The diet he prescribed was heavy on Schubert and, of course, opera, particularly his beloved Verdi, prepared with unsparing attention to detail. “Otello,” in 2011, was ferociously dramatic; “Macbeth” (2013), a brooding march. “Falstaff” (2016) was witty, more delicate than slapstick; “Aida” (2019), coolly elegant; “Un Ballo in Maschera” (2022), meticulously sumptuous.
“The relentless thing he will not back down on is the refinement — of line, of attack, of phrasing,” said James Smelser, a hornist. “He doesn’t make mistakes. There’s always clarity, preparedness, consistency.”
Muti has proved enthusiastic about performing in the community, including events at juvenile detention facilities. He embraced a fellowship program seeking to increase the racial diversity of the players’ ranks. And after years of resisting, he even began to drop some of his complaints about appearing at endless donor events.
There were troubles. In 2019, a musicians’ strike lasted nearly seven weeks; in an unusual move for a music director, Muti publicly sided with the players, and appeared with them on the picket line. During the pandemic, he agreed to stay on an extra year, but the pause in performances — which meant a pause in appearances by potential candidates — stalled the search for his successor.
Since relations between him and the orchestra are far warmer than they were with Barenboim at the end of his tenure — when Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez agreed to take on responsibilities in the interregnum, before Muti was hired — it makes sense for him to help fill the coming gap.
“I’ve worked in a few other places,” said Alexander, the orchestra’s president, “where it’s much more common that the music director disappears, or they come back once every three or five years. Early in our discussions with Maestro Muti about the end of his term, we said we wanted to keep seeing him for a number of weeks each season, which I think he was happy to hear.”
But while Muti will finish the musician hiring and tenure processes he has started, it’s not yet clear who will oversee new auditions. He seems intent on maintaining some flexibility, partly in case he should want to scale back his commitment after his successor is announced: He said that he has told the orchestra’s administration — who knows how much in jest? — “If you choose somebody that really I don’t like, then I don’t know if I come back.”
His replacement is the least of it. It takes little prompting for Muti to bemoan a host of cultural problems: the decline in music education, players and conductors too lazy to properly prepare or respect the letter of the score, what he views as the increasing distance between classical music and mainstream society.
“Today,” he said, bags heavy and dark under his eyes, “I think we are all lost.”
But his melancholy melts away when he’s on the podium, particularly in rehearsals that he leads with a kind of merry rigor, laughter snapping into a crisp downbeat. There was an endearing, oddball quality to the program he led near the end of May, telescoping between the intimate and the grand.
A Mozart divertimento was followed by William Kraft’s raucous Timpani Concerto No. 1. After intermission came one of Respighi’s lively and tender “Ancient Airs and Dances” suites, before his “Pines of Rome,” a Muti party piece that also closed his first concert as music director — in front of some 25,000 people in Millennium Park.
When you think of “Pines,” you usually think of bombast. But the loudness comes very near the end; much of the piece is actually quite subtle, and the way to make the finale really potent is to handle the earlier stuff with atmospheric transparency.
Muti now stretches those earlier passages into a hazily dreamlike, almost out of time quality, building only slowly to triumph. In the first performance, a Thursday evening, the pianist treated a diaphanous cadenza with too much flamboyance; Muti, visibly displeased on the podium, took him aside later, and the following afternoon, the passage was properly light and watery. Any exaggeration turns this piece into kitsch; even the brassy conclusion, under Muti’s baton, is shockingly elegant and clear.
“At the end of ‘Pines of Rome,’” Smelser, the hornist, said, “most conductors are flailing around. The sheer volume, it’s out of control. But he’s never out of control, and he doesn’t want us to be out of control.”
“The orchestra knows exactly what I want,” Muti said. “Many times, I don’t even conduct — or it seems that I don’t conduct. It’s been 13 years of wonderful musical experiences, and friendly. In 13 years, I haven’t had a second of fight with them. It’s been always like this.”
Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, June 17, 2023
Watch the photos:
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023