Riccardo Muti: In Music’s Fast Lane : The conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and La Scala visits Southern California

Riccardo Muti is the epitome of the glamour maestro.

This means the 47-year-old Italian conductor heads both a great orchestra and a great opera company, dividing his time equally between the Philadelphia Orchestra (which he will lead in concerts in Pasadena and Orange County this week) and La Scala.

For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 28, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 28, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In the May 14 article, “Riccardo Muti: In Music’s Fast Lane,” the designer of the new Philadelphia Orchestra concert hall was misidentified. The design is by the architectural firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown.

It means he can limit his guest conducting to the world’s two most prestigious orchestras, the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics.

It means that Muti is very, very popular. He even has two fan clubs in Japan, and he cannot make records fast enough to satisfy his two record companies, EMI and Philips.


It means he is paid a salary (about $650,000 for 15 weeks at the Philadelphia Orchestra) that puts him into the stratosphere of highly paid conductors.

And it means that Muti is a celebrity. He has a matinee idol’s good looks; he wears Armani suits and can go nowhere, especially in Italy, without being recognized.

Finally, it means that Muti lives in a very fast lane, and not just when he is speeding down the autostrada as fast as his blue Mercedes will take him between his home in Ravenna and his office at La Scala or jetting between Milan and Philadelphia.

In fact, so busy is Muti that squeezing in an hour for an interview entails substantial scheduling difficulties. In the two weeks between arriving in Philadelphia from Italy and beginning a major United States and Japan tour with his Philadelphians, Muti has not only the tour programs to prepare but regular subscriptions concerts to be given in Philadelphia and New York, along with recording sessions, filming for a television documentary and endless other tasks.


This particular morning Muti is in a Manhattan hotel after being driven up from Philadelphia in the white limousine the orchestra provides for him. Following the interview, he has a lunch appointment and then a rehearsal for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s evening program of Persichetti and Brahms in Carnegie Hall. Directly after the concert, he makes the two-hour drive back to Philadelphia (the hotel room is only a place for a change of clothes and maybe a quick nap).

The next day Muti has an early-morning piano rehearsal, followed by two orchestra rehearsals and a recording session. He is currently recording cycles of Brahms and Scriabin symphonies and Rachmaninoff piano concertos in Philadelphia, Schubert and Mozart symphony cycles in Vienna, Strauss and Bruckner cycles in Berlin. At La Scala, he has just made the first complete recording of Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” (all six hours of it); a video disc of the controversial La Scala production will also be released.

And so it goes, day after day, with rarely an hour to spare. And all this following a grueling month at La Scala, where he conducted three Mozart operas.

How does he do it all?

“First, you have to try to do what is possible, not the impossible,” Muti replies. “The second thing is you have to be organized. That doesn’t mean that organization makes the thing easier, but at least you know what you can do and what you cannot do.”

All of this said in the comfortable and relaxed way of someone who really is organized and has everything under control, no matter the maelstrom that surrounds him.

It has not been the calmest of mornings. Aggravating an already relentless schedule, Muti has spent the morning stuck in traffic on the drive to New York. And it also happens to be the day Herbert von Karajan has announced his resignation from the Berlin Philharmonic, and Muti’s name is in all the papers as being on the short list of likely successors for the conducting world’s most coveted position.

“That doesn’t make any difference,” he says of Karajan’s resignation. Muti already has extensive recording plans with Berlin. His current Philadelphia contract with the orchestra runs through the 1992-93 season, and he treats his commitments as sacred.


Moreover, after nine years, he has managed to build up a considerable amount of good will with the musicians and the orchestra, something becoming increasingly rare in the orchestra life. Philadelphia audiences, finally convinced that there can be life after Eugene Ormandy, have come to adore him.

Still, Muti says, he will not likely become another Ormandy, whose association with the Philadelphia lasted nearly half a century, or another Karajan, who spent 34 years as music director with the Berlin Philharmonic.

“Actually, I don’t believe that a music director should stay decades and decades in one place,” Muti confesses. “There is a moment when the orchestra or when the music director himself needs different experiences.”

But now Muti is happy cherishing his hard-won victories in his attempts to offer Philadelphians some new experiences. When appointed music director of the orchestra, Muti was still considered a young, up-and-coming conductor, full of beans, while Philadelphia was a city encrusted in musty tradition.

At La Scala, which Muti took over in 1986, he has shown the same strong determination to overcome stultifying tradition that has distinguished his Philadelphia tenure.

Performing three Mozart operas--"Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan Tutte"--in March was, he says, historic. While the operas are not unknown in Italy, they are surprisingly uncommon, and Muti says that to perform them in repertory, night after night, in a fluent and natural way was quite an achievement for an Italian opera company.

But Muti also points out that La Scala is perhaps the most adventurous company of all the world’s major opera houses. He is committed to having the company complete Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle, “Licht,” of which three operas have thus far been given premieres at La Scala. Muti is also determined to commission a new opera each season, something no other major company can come close to boasting. Plus he is willing to take a chance on stage directors who have interesting ideas.

As an example, Muti will open La Scala next season with a new Franco Rossi production of Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani.” Rossi, who directed a popular film version of “Carmen,” is from Naples and has made two films on Sicily, Muti says. “So I thought he was the right person to re-create this feeling of Sicily. It’s an experiment again. It will be the first time he directs opera. It could be good, or it could be a disaster.”


Born in Naples, where he studied at the local university before attending the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, Muti first attracted attention when he won the Guido Cantelli Competition for conductors in 1967. Two years later, at 28, he was appointed music director of the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence, a post he held for 11 years. In 1972, he succeeded Otto Klemperer as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, and he remained with the orchestra for 10 years, after which he was made its conductor laureate.

Muti’s reputation as a hot-blooded conductor full of fire and energy grew fast though concerts and recordings. But what Muti found when he began in Philadelphia was an orchestra that had ossified under Ormandy into an ensemble with a famous lush sound and no other, along with a limited repertory of the late-Romantic music Ormandy excelled in. He also found a concert hall, the Academy of Music, with unacceptably dry acoustics. And he found a city that liked its traditions just the way they were.

Muti says his goal was to retain the Philadelphia orchestra’s sound for music of the late Romantic period, but he wanted to expand the repertory, conducting more Classical and Baroque music and also adding more 20th-Century music. He also wanted to develop “sounds” that were right for those musics too. Plus, he insisted upon and fought for a new concert hall.

Nine years later, Muti, who has gone on to become one of the most distinguished of today’s conductors, has won his battles.

The Philadelphia Orchestra now plays as varied a season as any major orchestra. It has an admirably extensive program for commissioning new works from American composers. It plays far more Haydn and Mozart and early music than it ever had. Muti has added concert opera to the orchestra’s agenda. And, in the 1992-93 season he will preside over the opening of a $103-million new concert hall that is being designed by Michael Graves.

But Muti says that there is always more to be done. For one thing Muti would like to include more new music. In Italy he has championed a number of Italian composers, and he says that his obligation in Philadelphia is to help American music.

“When I started here,” he says, “I was not familiar with American music and now I know much more about it. But there is a lot to do in this country. Many composers work in universities and they are fine musicians, but they seem to have a life that is separate from the real world of performing. It’s difficult for them to be performed.

“And television doesn’t help here. There is a distance, a wall, between the public and the composers, and I think that very much should be done. If the government would decide to help this situation, it would be a very great help to the culture.”

The situation for Italian composers in Italy, where there is more state support for new music, is much better, Muti says, pointing out that he recently premiered a new work by the avant-garde composer, Salvatore Sciarrino, which was televised throughout the country.

“Do you know many cases in America where television will come to you and say we want to televise contemporary music and show it to the public?”

Even so, Muti points with pride to all the new American works the orchestra has commissioned recently. (One was for Los Angeles Philharmonic composer-in-residence Steven Stucky’s Concerto for Orchestra, which Muti introduced this season and which was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. Another was for Chinary Ung’s “Inner Voices,” which Dennis Russell Davies premiered with the orchestra in 1986 and which has just been awarded the highly prestigious Grawemeyer Award).

Muti also says he insists upon including an American work on each of the orchestra’s tours.

Another of Muti’s proud achievements with his Philadelphians is his new set of the nine Beethoven symphonies on EMI/Angel. Making such a recording is not without peril. Muti risks his performances being compared with recorded interpretations by the century’s great conductors. He also must face competition from the attention-getting “authentic” performances played on period instruments and at Beethoven’s tempos.

As the early music movement encroaches more and more on the territory of the standard symphony orchestra--Muti’s Beethoven symphony performances, for instance, are outsold by Roger Norrington’s period-instrument ones on the same label--conductors of modern symphony orchestras find themselves forced to take some sort of stand.

Muti says that he follows the historical research closely but that interpretations change from generation to generation and that there is room for more than one approach.

“We should not really say that one is completely right and one is completely wrong,” he argues.

But Muti is also suspicious of some of the claims he hears about authentic performances. “You cannot re-create an entire world just by putting your hands on old instruments and trying to become extremely dry and play extremely fast,” he contends.

“The instruments are only one of the elements. We as human beings have changed a great deal between Beethoven and Mozart. We perform in big concerts halls. We dress in different ways. We travel in different ways. We eat in different ways. So to have a really stylistically original performance of something, old instruments are not enough. We should physically and spiritually go back 200 years, or 150 years.”

Muti has, however, been in the forefront of restoring a certain degree of historical authenticity to Italian opera, which is perhaps the music that is closest to his heart. He now regularly gives the first performances of Verdi and Rossini operas in their new critical editions, which correct a great many of the errors of previous versions. But correcting errors and actually returning to a performing style of a century ago are, for Muti, different things.

“In the end, the performer has the final choice of what he wants to do. The critical edition doesn’t mean that it’s a sort of bible that you have to follow word by word. The freedom of the artist is still sacred.”

Muti has reached the point in his career where he can afford to take chances, however visible. He is also willing to take chances because the most important thing in making music, he says, is not to be pedestrian.

But, then, who walks in the fast lane?