Riccardo Muti brings Chicago Symphony to California


Reporting from Chicago —

Later this week, when music director Riccardo Muti brings his Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Orange County for the first time in 25 years, it won’t be to show off. The CSO doesn’t have to. The fabled 121-year-old ensemble long ago earned itself a lofty niche among the world’s elite bands.

Nor does the charismatic, much-honored Neapolitan maestro have anything to prove personally. His vaunted career, which includes the directorships of the La Scala opera in Milan, the Philadelphia Orchestra and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, speaks for itself. The poetic perfectionist, 70, who recently took on the title of honorary conductor for life at the Rome Opera, is at the top of his considerable game as one of the last remaining podium titans of his generation.

But Muti hasn’t conducted in Southern California since a visiting stint with the Philadelphians in the 1980s. More to the point, the three Southland appearances by the Muti-Chicago powerhouse will give local listeners an opportunity to hear how the artistic marriage between his Italianate warmth and the orchestra’s sinewy brilliance is developing during this, his second season as music director of an orchestra for which, until just a few years ago, he appeared to be an unlikely catch.


The tour begins with concerts Tuesday and Wednesday in San Francisco. From there, Muti and the CSO will head down the coast to Costa Mesa for a concert Friday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall before wrapping up the California tour with concerts in Palm Desert and San Diego. Los Angeles is conspicuously absent from the itinerary. When asked for an explanation, Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, replied via e-mail: “We are great fans of maestro Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and did in fact invite them to appear at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While our organizations enjoy close and excellent relations, as matters sometimes transpire, we were unable to come to a contractual agreement.”

Along with conducting symphonies by César Franck and Franz Schubert, Muti will introduce Southern California listeners to new works by the CSO’s resident composers, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, the world premieres of which he directed this month back home at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.

Such is Muti’s confidence in Bates and Clyne that he insisted their pieces be included in the tour repertory well before any notes had reached staff paper.

“They are big, important works, each completely different from the other,” the music director says. “It’s essential to take new works on tour because we, as a great orchestra, have an obligation to show the public the latest fruits of young, serious, talented composers who are trying to make new creative paths.”

There’s no question Muti has brought new vigor, a sleeker and more refined sound, and a renewed sense of artistic purpose to an orchestra that had grown rather adipose during predecessor Daniel Barenboim’s controversial 15-season tenure, which ended in 2006. While no one disputed the latter’s pianistic gifts, many inside and outside the orchestra found his interpretations uneven and his leadership erratic.

The CSO players, many of them holdovers from the fabled Georg Solti era, were looking for another world-class podium dynamo who could restore them to international glory while boosting their constituency back home. During the search committee’s prolonged deliberations, one name kept rising to the fore: Muti’s. (“There was no Plan B,” said Michael Henoch, CSO assistant principal oboe and a member of the committee.)


But would the patrician maestro accept the job, if it were offered with an orchestra he hadn’t faced in more than 30 years? His wounds still fresh from the political and artistic wrangle that had prompted his departure from La Scala in 2005, Muti made it widely known that henceforth he wished to steer clear of any further permanent positions and in fact had turned down two such offers from the New York Philharmonic.

But Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Assn., believed that bringing Muti and the Chicago Symphony together could yield a match for the ages. And so began a steady courtship that lasted well over two years. It blossomed into an open affair in fall 2007 when Muti began the subscription season in Chicago and later led the orchestra on a European tour that turned out to be a mutual love feast. Muti was presented with 60 letters from orchestra members thanking him for the experience. In May 2008, marriage vows were exchanged, and Muti signed a five-year contract as the CSO’s 10th music director.

No one seemed more surprised by how quickly it all fell into place than the conductor himself. “Sometimes when you least expect it, the timing and the situation unite,” Muti told reporters at the time.

Two health incidents sidelined Muti for much of 2010-11, his first official tour of duty in Chicago. The first was brought on by exhaustion, the second by arrhythmia, a heart problem later corrected by the insertion of a pacemaker. After each incident, he bounced back with renewed vigor and purpose, clearly hungry to make up for lost time. Muti’s physical condition continues to be excellent, his doctors say.

The CSO management has done a singularly successful job of selling the maestro to all of Chicago — including card-carrying symphony subscribers as well as ordinary folks whose listening habits don’t normally include classical music. Muti’s noble Neapolitan brow adorns banners up and down the city’s Michigan Avenue thoroughfare. All this is redounding to the benefit of the institution: The CSO Assn. reported record fundraising and solid ticket sales for fiscal 2011, with the main subscription series finishing at 84% paid capacity sold. Orchestra members, media and public have been unanimous in singing Muti’s praises, uncommon in the city’s highly opinionated musical life.

Along with the great hype has come great music-making, and not all the beneficiaries are the privileged few who are able to pony up the $276 top ticket price for a Muti concert. For Muti is making good on his campaign promise to bring classical music to “the many communities of Chicago and to new generations.”


He is partnering with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s creative consultant, in a Citizen Musician initiative whereby participants use their talents and passion for music to enhance the quality of life in the city’s diverse communities. No CSO music director has done more to reach out to disadvantaged pockets of the social fabric. Muti has paid repeated visits to a state facility for incarcerated young women in suburban Warrenville, where he plays the piano and talks to the inmates. He offers them the hope of finding better lives, someday, somewhere, beyond the drab gray-brick walls that confine them.

“I think [the residents] have a beautiful future ahead of them, as long as we insist on bringing this kind of music and culture to them,” Muti said after a visit to the facility last fall. “As long as we keep pushing them in the right direction.”

And how does he assess the progress he and the Chicago Symphony have made together thus far?

“The orchestra is extremely sensitive, extremely willing to follow my ideas,” he says. “It is a good overture to what will be the future.”

Like Los Angeles’ Gustavo Dudamel, Chicago has a full-service symphony orchestra music director — a passionate advocate for classical music who’s making a big, busy urban metropolis sit up and take notice.


Von Rhein has been classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1977.