The eyes of the classical music world all fell on Salzburg, Austria, this past weekend as Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in three highly anticipated concerts during the 100th anniversary season of the Salzburg Festival. “The Ninth is such a singular work in which, once begun, one no longer has much to say,” declared Der Standard, “unless one’s name is Muti.”

As if the centennial season and the internationally recognized, 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven were not enough cause for celebration, the fact that these concerts took place in the midst of a global pandemic made these three performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  momentous — what Oberösterreichische Volksblatt hailed as “a divine triumph,” an “incomparable Ninth . . . a ray of hope in the year of the corona pandemic.” By all accounts, the eloquent artistry of the performances matched the significance of the occasion. “A renaissance in the Grosses Festpielhaus. He, who in June re-awakened Italian musical life with a kiss, the last Maestro to still examines the concept of [his] craft, creates, disposes and dominates,” echoed Manuel Brug of Die Welt.

Muti has a 50-year history with the Salzburg Festival, where he has appeared regularly since his initial invitation to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic there in 1971 by none other than Herbert von Karajan. After Karajan’s death in 1989, Muti succeeded the German maestro in leading the festival’s popular mid-August concerts, known as the “Ferragosto” appointment, in honor of the Feast of the Assumption, and typically including performances of great romantic choral and orchestral works. “The high mass of the Ninth Symphony in the double anniversary year of Beethoven and the festival was reserved for Riccardo Muti,” said the Salzburger Nachrichten.

“When Riccardo Muti is at the podium, [Schiller’s] ‘kiss to the world’ takes on two meanings as the symbol of joy,” wrote Walter Weidringer of Die Presse. “For one thing, Muti also embraces the sound tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic . . . on the other hand, Muti reads the work based on his love for singing. His concept showed the instrumental cantabile in the form of the developing joy melody presented in [each of the symphony’s] movements.”

Although the Vienna Philharmonic famously does not have a music director, Muti’s rapport with the ensemble is frequently noted and further demonstrated by his receipt of the Golden Ring, a special sign of esteem and affection from the philharmonic, and the Otto Nicolai Gold Medal for his outstanding artistic contributions, which he received in 2001. As Muti noted himself in an interview with Corriere della Sera, “It is not by chance that I will conduct the New Year’s Concert for the sixth time.” Muti recognizes the special significance of his upcoming concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic to welcome in 2021, as he says, “a welcome symbol of hope after such a tragic year.”

From left: Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Marianne Crebassa (contralto), Riccardo Muti (conductor), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass), Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic. | Photo ©Salzburg Festival/Marco Borrelli

The Salzburg Festival was established during a time of crisis near the end of the First World War; its first season opened on Aug. 22, 1920. In his memorandum of 1917, one of its three founders, Max Reinhardt wrote of “the ravages of this war,” of the “terrible reality of these days” and of the “incredible blaze consuming the world” against which a festival in Salzburg could and should provide a bulwark.

The Salzburg Festival played a symbolic role again after World War II, when Gen. Mark Clark, the commander of the occupying American forces that governed Salzburg until the Treaty of 1955, chose the opening of the festival for his first public appearance in Austria, considering it a “celebration of the rebirth of cultural freedom.”

In 2020, the festival and “the Ode to Joy, Beethoven’s well-composed longing for freedom, takes on a new meaning in times of masked audiences” (Oberösterreichische Nachrichten). Indeed, the Wiener Zeitung referred to the performances as a “festive aerosol” where art overcame the obstacles presented by the pandemic.

“In Riccardo Muti’s interpretation, the moments of beauty and harmony are particularly convincing,” said the Salzburger Nachrichten. “From the very first bars, the revered orchestra knew how to create crackling tension under the star maestro,” wrote Helmut Christian Mayer of the Kurier. He later added that “the abundance of colors was unique,” explaining how Muti took advantage of the “dynamism and nuances” of the symphony. And, when appropriate, he exercised restraint, what the Wiener Zeitung referred to as “laissez-faire at the highest orchestral level.”

The Vienna State Opera Choir Concert Association and a star-studded cast of soloists, including soprano Asmik Grigorian, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, tenor Saimir Pirgu, and baritone Gerald Finley, joined Muti and Vienna Philharmonic for the final movement. As Heidemarie Klabacher of Die Standard put it, quoting Schiller’s text: “ ‘God’s sparks over the starry sky’ looked more like splinters of meteor,” which were echoed by the standing ovations, filled with “tumultuous jubilation,” which followed the concerts.

Of course, these concerts, which remarkably were performed inside the Grosses Festspielhaus, required the enforcement of strict health and safety protocols. The Salzburg Festival announced in late spring that its 2020 season would take place with modified programming and added safety precautions. Those measures included adjusting programs to eliminate intermissions, adapting entry and exit procedures, modifying seating to allow for social distancing, mandating the use of masks and undertaking daily COVID-19 testing for administration and artists. The performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony featured a smaller chorus separated from the orchestra by a plexiglass barrier.

“I see us as a bearer of hope, not as a risk-taker,” said Helga Rabl-Stadler, president of the Salzburg Festival, in an interview with Christian Seidl of the Berliner Zeitung. As Seidl noted, this summer “the cultural world is looking to Salzburg . . . more than ever.  . . . If everything goes well, the spell will be broken and elsewhere the halls could soon receive spectators again.”

One can hope that the Salzburg Festival’s example and the efforts taken by its local and national governments can provide a successful model for the performing arts worldwide. No one hopes this more than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Zell Music Director, who regrets that circumstances will not allow him to conduct his fall CSO concerts as planned. He closed a recent interview with Corriere della Sera, saying, “I miss my Chicago Orchestra very much.”

Next, Muti travels to the Spoleto Festival in Italy where he will conduct the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and bestow the distinguished Carla Fendi Award to nurse Elena Pagliarini. A viral photograph of her exhausted and asleep at her keyboard became a symbol of Italy’s beleaguered health workers and a symbol of their sacrifice during the pandemic. This concert will be for live streaming on August 30 at 1:30 PM CDT via Google Play and Apple Play via. More information is available at the festival’s website. 

TOP: Riccardo Muti conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony during the Salzburg’s Festival’s 100th anniversary season. | ©Salzburg Festival/Marco Borrelli