Having completed his annual residency at the Salzburg Festival in late August, Riccardo Muti returned to his native Italy to conduct two important concerts in Spoleto and Ravello with the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, of which he is founder and director.

The concert in Spoleto, on Aug. 30, concluded the 63rd Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds). There he also presented a national hero with the distinguished Carla Fendi Foundation Prize, an honor he received in 2014. The Sept. 1 concert in Ravello, known as “The City of Music,” due to its long history as a haven for composers and other artists, marked Muti’s debut performance with the Cherubini Orchestra at the Ravello Festival. The concert took place in the Oscar Niemeyer Auditorium, a curved architectural marvel designed by the famed Brazilian architect of the same name, is built into the hillside overlooking the Amalfi coast.

At both concerts, Muti conducted an elegant program of selections representing Italian Classical and bel canto composers in addition to works by Mozart and Schubert — what Il Mattino referred to as “a climate that combined Viennese classicism” as well as evocative “Mediterranean impulses,” thereby presenting a portrait of a musically united 18th- and 19th-century Europe. The concerts opened with the overture to Il matrimonio segreto, an opera of great historical significance by the once celebrated Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa. “Muti has been able to grasp what is most appreciated in the classics: the lightness that emanates from irony, even when everything turns into tragedy,” wrote Pierluigi Pietricola, who attended the Spoleto performance, for a local news outlet.

The overture was followed by three arias sung by soprano Rosa Feola, who joined Muti and the Cherubini Orchestra for both concerts, singing Mozart’s “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni, “Quante volte” from Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet and finally, the moving “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello. This was followed by Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, often referred to as the Unfinished Symphony. The program finished with Mercadante’s Sinfonia Spagnola from I due Figaro. The 1826 manuscript was discovered in 2009 in Madrid by an Italian musicologist. Two years later, the first production of the opera in modern times was presented at the Ravenna Festival, conducted by Riccardo Muti, and later issued on a recording on the Ducale label.

“The direction of Riccardo Muti is exceptional.  . . . Recalling at times Bernstein and at times Toscanini, Riccardo Muti knows how to establish a connection with the orchestra that does not require exaggerated movements. A particular look, a certain way of moving the body, a precise turn of the baton: This whole expressive repertoire is instantly captured by the orchestra and transformed into a unique, unrepeatable sound,” wrote Pietricola, who saw this particular performance as a catalyst for cultural change in Italy. He continued, “The repertoire proposed by Muti in the final concert of the Festival dei Due Mondi could mark the beginning of an authentic change.”

The concert was followed with Muti’s presentation of the Carla Fendi Foundation Prize to Elena Pagliarini, a nurse from the Cremona Hospital in the Lombardy region, who was on the front lines of the fight to provide care for thousands of Italians during the most virulent part of the coronavirus outbreak. A viral photograph of her exhausted and asleep at her keyboard in her uniform and mask became a symbol of the toll the virus took on the country’s health-care system and workers. Pagliarini herself contracted COVID-19, losing her sense of taste and smell, but returned to work after 23 days in quarantine.

Riccardo Muti (at right) honors the dedication of Italy’s healthcare workers by symbolically presenting the Carla Fendi Foundation Prize to nurse Elena Pagliarini (at right) with the touch of his baton, in order to respect health and safety precautions, following his concert with the Cherubini Youth Orchestra at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy on August 30. Maria Teresa Venturi Fendi, president of the Carla Fendi Foundation, appears at the center. | Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF

In Adnkronos International’s coverage of the event, it was reported that “Muti himself conferred the prize on stage, with a symbolic gesture given the very strict anti-COVID measures . . . ‘I am happy to meet you, you have become a symbol, because in the moment of need you and your colleagues were exceptional and we will always be grateful to you for this.’ ” Clearly overwhelmed to receive such an honor, Pagliarini offered sincere thanks to the Fendi foundation and Maestro Muti, “who, through me, wanted to honor the work of so many anonymous colleagues. The emotion that I feel I must express with an even greater intensity is a recommendation that [we] can only rise above this experience and proximity to so much pain . . . [use it as] wings to fly towards health and freedom, towards joy.”

In a collaboration between RMMusic and the Festival dei Due Mondi, this concert was made available for streaming online. Additional information on streams featuring Riccardo Muti can be found here by subscribing to the Riccardo Muti Music e-newsletter.

The Sept. 1 concert that followed at the Ravello Music Festival sold out in the matter of hours after its announcement. Muti was hailed as “the magic in Ravello” by the headlines of Il Mattino. The concert represented one of the pillars of its 68th season. Artistic Director Alessio Vlad said, “We must all be grateful to the work that the Maestro has dedicated in recent years to the training of the youth . . . his work represents one of the most extraordinary musical achievements of our time.”

Muti emphasized the importance of preserving Italy’s cultural heritage by supporting its young musicians in his own remarks given before the final work by Mercadante. “Riccardo Muti, who, as a superb concert artist and an acute connoisseur of the human soul, knows how to build ‘dramaturgical’ paths to highlight what matters most: the future of music with a great past must be built in the present,” wrote Dario Ascoli of Corriere della Sera. He concluded his review by writing, “Maestro Muti expressed the concept that music is inexplicable, rationally incomprehensible, yet teaching it is a duty, not so much to have more musicians, but to form better citizens.”

The concert was streamed to a screen in the town square, where, “the public greeted the Maestro with a standing ovation as was the audience in the Neimeyer Auditorium, ‘hoping,’ said the festival staff, ‘that this is only the first of many evenings to be enjoyed together” (La Repubblica, Naples).

TOP: Riccardo Muti conducting the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in Spoleto, Italy on Aug. 30, 2020  | Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF