Riccardo Muti once famously threw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game. Surprisingly, the Maestro used his left hand — even though he favors his right while on the podium. And the throw, by all accounts, was perfect. In another startling revelation, Muti recalls that he persuaded classical-music maverick Pierre Boulez, an avowed detractor of Dmitri Shostakovich, to reconsider that assessment. (Boulez once dismissed Shostakovich as “the Meyerbeer of the 20th century.”) All of this is disclosed in A Portrait in Four Movements: The Chicago Symphony Under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink and Muti, published by the University of Chicago Press and released May 15. The book is a compendium of essays, interviews and reviews by Andrew Patner (1959-2015), critic at large for WFMT-FM and classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Edited by John R. Schmidt and Douglas W. Shadle, the book collects Patner’s reviews of concerts given by the CSO from 1991 t0 2014, as well as transcripts of his radio interviews with these colossal figures. This excerpt comes from an interview broadcast June 18, 2012, on WFMT. To listen to the actual broadcast, click here.
PATNER: This time we get to welcome a star of a sport that I didn’t know was even known in Italy and that is baseball. Do you know the word southpaw?
PATNER: That’s baseball talk for a left-handed pitcher.
MUTI: How do you spell?
PATNER: S-O-U-T-H-P-A-W. So they have posted “Muti — throws L, throws left, conducts R, conducts right.”
MUTI: I conduct also with the left.
PATNER: Do you use both?
MUTI: I think that many people were surprised to see that I throw the ball with the left hand. But I am, as we say in Italy, ambidextrous. Certain things I do with the left hand because, for
example, if I have to throw a stone with the right hand, I cannot. Considering that the only thing that I know how to do in my profession, in my life, is to move my arms in the air, I think the fact that it is very easy for me to move the left hand helps very much in conducting, because then you can underline, indicate the expression of the music without having the problem of a left hand that doesn’t know what to do.
The baseball game was my first experience. My sons are here, and they like baseball, all the American sports, so they decided to go to see the Cubs against the Detroit Tigers. And I said, “OK, I have a free afternoon, so I will join you.” So when they heard that I was going, they [the Cubs] offered me the first pitch. I was very nervous because of course if you make a disaster, even if then people say, “Oh, you know, this is not your profession,” it’s still something that hurts. And as the music director of the Chicago Symphony, to throw on the ground and to make a disaster. … So I practiced here [at Symphony Center] in the corridor two or three times, but with a shorter distance. So when I saw the distance, I was a bit worried. But when I saw this player waiting with his glove, I said, “I have to find the strength.” And then I thought if I do a downbeat very strong, a strong downbeat has a lot of power, it can help. And then, it went right there.
MUTI: It was a perfect pitch.
PATNER: Well, let’s shift from one kind of athleticism to perhaps another. Bruckner’s Sixth and the first violin concerto of Niccolò Paganini, how do they fit together, or do they?
MUTI: They don’t fit at all together. The Bruckner Sixth is one of my favorite Bruckner symphonies. I am a Bruckner fan. This symphony has one of the most beautiful adagios that Bruckner ever wrote. Little by little, I want to do all the symphonies of Bruckner. So what to do in the first part [of the program]? Generally, with Bruckner, you do something of Schubert since Bruckner is the continuation of the Austrian tradition. Or Haydn or Mozart. But I wanted to do something with our wonderful concertmaster, Robert Chen, and I asked him what he wanted to play. The Paganini concerto is for me to be at home because all the concertos of Paganini are practically operatic works. He uses the violin not only technically and in a virtuosic way, but he puts in the instrument all the style and the tradition of singers of his time. When the violin is not involved in acrobatic technical passages, he goes immediately to languid and romantic melodies where you could put words, like an opera of Donizetti or Rossini or Bellini. So there is no connection. Two completely different [works]. But why not? It is not necessary I think that the program must have a program.
PATNER: You are doing a work that has never been done before by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In fact, it’s been done in this country by few orchestras, even though it is by Shostakovich, and America has been almost Shostakovich crazy for decades. It is his last major orchestral work, and one of his very last works, the suite of verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145a.
MUTI: I came to this piece when I read somewhere that Shostakovich had put in music some of the poems of Michelangelo. My first reaction was how is it possible to put in music these verses that are so beautiful, but so difficult even for a cultivated Italian to understand the real meaning? I was very curious how this would work in Russian language. Of course the Italian text, even if you don’t understand the words, it’s so beautiful. For example, in one of the poems [Giovanni Carlo di Strozzi’s epigram for Michelangelo’s sculpture titled “La notte”], we read, “La Notte, che tu vedi in sì dolci atti dormir, fu da un Angelo scolpita in questo sasso, e perché dorme ha vita: Destala se nol credi, e parleratti.” And Michelangelo answers, “Caro m’è il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso, mentre che ‘l danno e la vergogna dura; non veder, non sentir m’è gran ventura; però non mi destar, deh, parla basso.” Now, even if you don’t understand, it’s so beautiful and so musical, that you can create the music.
PATNER: Italian, as a language, fits so naturally with lyricism and singing.
MUTI: So like a river. But the choral atmosphere that Shostakovich uses with the orchestra and with the voice, especially in the low register and the high register using the entire range of the bass baritone voice, is so Michelangelo, and this dark, menacing atmosphere, I really think it is one of the greatest masterpieces of Shostakovich, with a great orchestration, and with this use of the cellos, basses and contrabassoons. And then suddenly in the end, the celesta. Yesterday I was very impressed and touched by the fact that Maestro Pierre Boulez was at the concert and came to see me. I consider Boulez the most important musician living today, and I have for him the greatest and deepest respect. When he came in, because he’s not only a great man and a great musician, but a humble person, he said, “I thank you for introducing me to this piece; I was not at all familiar with this music. I didn’t know it.” He made some enthusiastic comments about the score, and he found it one of the greatest works of Shostakovich. The fact that it is not performed very often depends on the fact that you need a cultivated audience, a patient audience —
PATNER: The work is about 45 minutes [in duration].
MUTI: And the moments of great excitement are very few. Generally, it’s very pensive, very thoughtful. The other thing is that you need a great singer. This piece has been translated also into German and has been sung by German singers, but the German language doesn’t work because it doesn’t fit with this music.
PATNER: Several of the musicians told me, in the last days, that when you are conducting — this is something the audience wouldn’t have a way of knowing — when you are conducting a work with text, you want the instrumental musicians to have the text.
MUTI: Always I’ve done this in my career. Even when I do operas, I ask the library of the theater to prepare the libretto and to put it on every desk of the musicians so the musicians can read it, can follow it when they are not playing. Especially in a piece like this, if you don’t know what he’s saying, he can speak about tomatoes or vampires, you don’t know.
PATNER: You stole my story about Maestro Boulez because I was speaking with Boulez at the interval, and it is not a secret that over all, Boulez is not a fan of Shostakovich’s music. When I did an interview with him after he had been settled in for a few years in Chicago, I said, “Maestro, you are at home here now, you’re staying here, and you don’t need to give Americans only one side, you can say some of the things you might say at home, so let’s go through some of the people you don’t conduct.” And I would mention Brahms, and he would say “too perfect,” or Beethoven, “I love Beethoven.” I said Shostakovich and he said, “Nothing, nothing.” I said, “Well, but what about the quartets?” “No.” “What about the piano music?” “Nothing — he’s the Meyerbeer of the 20th century.” So when I saw Maestro Boulez last night, I said to him, “Is this now your favorite Shostakovich?” He laughed and paused, and he said, “Actually, this piece is a revelation, and this performance is a revelation.” So you have made an historic contribution here.
MUTI: He is not only a great musician, but he is open-minded. I’m sure that tomorrow he will come back to hear again this piece.
PATNER: Well, that I think I can guarantee that this will be the first time Pierre Boulez has voluntarily heard a Shostakovich work twice.
MUTI: Or maybe three, I will see.
PATNER: If someone were to hear a performance by you in the early 1970s of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, and they were to hear the performances you are giving now this week in Chicago, what do you think they would find different about them?
MUTI: I think that the greatest influence in my conducting as a musician and as a conductor has come from the Vienna Philharmonic. I have conducted this music a lot with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic, and that gives you a certain solidity and confidence. One thing has not changed in the years and that is the tempi — quite bright, not slow. For example, I strongly believe that the first movement of the symphony is allegro con brio. This ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta rhythm element gives life to the entire first movement. I disagree with the so-called tradition where before the fermata there is this big ritardando. In a period of our history, Beethoven has become sort of a messiah of a certain ideology, Beethoven and Bruckner. So there was a bigger emphasis on certain things to make them even more powerful and majestic. There is enough drama and tragedy in this music, and to keep the music tight is much more Beethoven’s style than to make it over romantic. The second movement is andante con moto. Andante comes from the Italian language “andare.” Andare means “to go.” Andare. Many times andante is taken like adagio, slow. But andante means andiamo. Andiamo means “let’s go.” And andante con moto — con moto is not with a motorcycle but means “with movement.” So even more. Con moto. Don’t slow down, go.
PATNER: You’re saying let’s read what he wrote. He made choices for every note, for every tempo marking, when he used German, when he used Italian — that’s very specific.
MUTI: The metronome markings of Beethoven are so fast that some people believe that he had the wrong metronome.
PATNER: The second cycle that Solti did he tried to do these extremely fast metronome markings.
MUTI: But then you are concerned about the speed, not about interpretation. Nino Rota, who was a very important musician, and who put metronome markings on his scores, always said to me that the metronome speed that you put on your score in the evening is wrong the next morning. It’s true, because you are tired and you are happy, you are drunk, you have a bad stomach problem, a headache, and you feel that that is the metronome of that moment. In the morning you are another person. We know that Brahms when he conducted his symphonies in Vienna in the Musikverein, and he conducted two, three, four times, changed the tempi, the mood, the atmosphere sometimes dramatically from one evening to another evening. He was not in contradiction with himself, but the mood was different. So I don’t believe there exists a right tempo and a wrong tempo. There can be if we go to extremes. But if you are convinced of what you are doing, then it makes sense.
For example, one of the greatest and incredible experiences I had was in the late ’70s, I did the Schumann Piano Concerto in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic and Sviatoslav Richter, and in the second movement the cellos always, in every orchestra, when this phrase is coming [hums], you can see in their faces they are very happy that their moment is coming, the great phrase of the celli. And when we arrive there, the cellos, the Viennese, they were ready with their instruments. And they started. [Hums] And Richter said, “Oh, no — no, no, no.” He was very kind. This should be like chamber music. [Hums] And I remember because I was on the podium that the eyes of the Viennese cellists, they looked at him like, “What is he saying?” But then after two, three, four times, and at the moment of the concert, everybody was convinced that that was the right way to do it. Then one month later I was in Edinburgh with the Philharmonia, and I did the Schumann Piano Concerto with [Emil] Gilels. So I thought that the way that Richter indicated was the Russian way, and I was prepared to [hums]. And Gilels says, “Oh, no, no — no, no.” He says, “Langsam.” [Hums, much slower.] I felt that, you know, I had to be ready for all kind of desires.
PATNER: That reminds me also of a pianist whom you still work with who is a very special artist, and that’s Radu Lupu. One evening he was performing on tour with the Chicago Symphony, and it was Brahms’ second piano concerto, and there was a moment in that grand opening movement where everybody in the audience, the orchestra, the conductor and Lupu, they’re all looking at each other because things started to go in a different than expected direction, but in a beautiful direction. In fact, it even felt like a plane lifting off. And the next year I asked him about this and I said, “When do you know?” And he said, “I know when it starts to happen, when I’m playing.”
MUTI: There are some miracles that happen, fortunately very seldom, because if not it would not be exceptional or a miracle. Something like this happened to me when I was conducting one evening with the Vienna Philharmonic the Bruckner Seventh Symphony. In the adagio, I don’t know how and why, suddenly I felt that the entire sound of the orchestra was changing and the entire atmosphere was becoming higher than I was producing, something that was out of my control, was too beautiful to be conducted by Muti. It was so fantastic. That went on for three, four minutes, because in the moment then, when you fully realize that this miracle is happening, then it disappears.
PATNER: It dissipates.
MUTI: It becomes good, but the magic goes.
PATNER: Some kind of Santo Spirito [Holy Spirit] was there, but once it was recognized, then it went back.
MUTI: It vanished.
Reprinted with permission from A Portrait in Four Movements: The Chicago Symphony under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink and Muti by Andrew Patner, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
TOP: Riccardo Muti prepares to throw the first pitch at a Cubs-Detroit Tigers game in 2012. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography