Rocca Brancaleone, Ravenna

After several months of sheltering in place, Riccardo Muti returns to the podium at distinguished venues and summer festivals across Europe.

His first performances were June 13 and 14 at the Musikverein in Vienna. There he performed with the Vienna Philharmonic for a restricted audience of 100 patrons. Since his 1971 debut at the Salzburg Festival with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Muti has maintained close ties with the Vienna Philharmonic, which he has conducted more than 500 times over his career; Austria has become an important artistic homeland for the Italian-born maestro, now music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “The relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic has always been a constant in my life,” Muti has said. “Vienna has always been my second home.”

Muti’s June concerts at the Musikverein included poignant repertoire choices, including Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 (nicknamed the Tragic Symphony), Johann Strauss Jr.’s Voices of Spring Waltz and Josef Strauss’ Margherita Polka. Peter Jarolin of Austria’s Kurier commented at length on the symbolism of the music: “It was astonishing how Muti and the Philharmonic brought this piece into the world today, as if it had only arisen on the occasion of the Corona pandemic.” Schubert wrote the symphony in 1816, known as The Year Without a Summer, when a volcanic eruption on Mount Tambora in Indonesia created global climate abnormalities leading to drought, crop failure, famine and economic collapse across Europe. “In the cheerful finale, however, the crisis was overcome with radiance. What a symbol!” wrote Jarolin, adding, “The way Muti and the ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra (all of whom tested negative for the virus) executed this Schubert was fabulous.”

The selections by the Strauss family of composers were an equally welcome “outlook for better times.” No doubt Maestro will conduct more waltzes and polkas when he conducts the 2021 New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, marking his sixth podium appearance in this festive tradition at the Musikverein. In an interview with Pablo l. Rodríguez of Spain’s El País, Muti said, “It is an honor to conduct it; . . . the orchestra wants to show the world the great creations of the Strauss family.” Muti also recognizes the special significance of conducting this concert in 2021; it will be a welcome symbol of hope “after such a tragic year.”

Next, Muti will perform June 21 at the Ravenna Festival in what organizers have billed as Italy’s first live performance of orchestral music since the country’s strict lockdown was introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Founded in 1990 by Muti’s wife, Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, the Ravenna Festival reimagined its season and prepared its own safety protocols this spring in order to have performances in 2020. These measures received the approval of the Italian government, allowing the festival to present a reprogrammed season with 40 events. The opening event of its 31st season will be an open-air concert led by Maestro Muti in the Ravenna’s 15th-century fortress, the Rocca Brancaleone. “It is a symbol of reopening, of the joy at having recovered the music,” said Muti (El País).

For the opening concert, Muti will be joined by more than 65 members of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and soprano soloist Rosa Feola. Passionate about teaching young musicians, Muti founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in 2004, and the ensemble has been a regular fixture at the Ravenna Festival ever since. In addition to social distancing for the artists and staff, the audience will be limited to 250 people, all required to wear masks as well as to enter and exit the fortress at assigned intervals and to observe social-distancing guidelines. On stage, there will be a minimum of 3 feet between musicians, expanding to 4½ to 6 feet between wind players.

The concert will open with Rêverie by Scriabin, followed by Mozart’s motet Exsultate, jubilate and Et incarnatus est from the Mass in C Minor, K. 427, the latter two performed by Feola. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (Jupiter) completes the program. Mozart composed the work during the summer of 1788, a time marked by increasing personal financial troubles and the loss of a child. “From a time amongst the darkest of the composer’s life, a luminous symphony was born,” read the press release of the Ravenna Festival — a work “capable of raising Mozart’s genius above the daily adversities.”

Muti continues the annual Roads of Friendship concerts with the Cherubini Orchestra with performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica, on July 3 at the Rocca Brancaleone and on July 5 and the Paestum archeological site in southern Italy with its three ancient Greek temples, dating to about 600 to 450 BCE, providing a dramatic backdrop. This will mark the 24th annual Roads of Friendship concerts, a music initiative established by Italy’s Ravenna Festival to build bonds among nations afflicted by war, natural disasters or political conflict. The Roads of Friendship promotes the power of music to lift the human spirit. “This year he will build a ‘musical bridge’ with Syria,” read El País regarding the July 3 and 5 programs, “dedicating his concert to the memory of Hevrin Khalaf, the Kurdish politician and civil engineer recently assassinated by pro-Turkish militia.” In a separate concert for the Ravenna Festival on July 12, Muti conducts the Cherubini Orchestra and cellist Tamás Varga in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Ninth Symphony, From the New World.

Muti also conducts concerts in the 100th season of the Salzburg Festival, which has been modified and shortened to 30 days in August due to the coronavirus outbreak. Muti will conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and an all-star cast of soloists, including Asmik Grigorian, Marianne Crebassa, Daniel Johansson and Gerald Finley. The three performances will take place in the Grosses Festpielhaus between Aug. 14 and 17. All Salzburg Festival performances this summer will adhere to an extensive security and prevention plan. In the interview with El País, Muti expressed his pleasure with being able to honor Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with the concerts in Ravenna and Salzburg, stressing the importance of the Ninth Symphony’s “universal message that we will all be brothers and sisters.”

The other recent major announcement is that Muti will conduct the opening event of the 2021 Arena di Verona Opera Festival in two concert performances of Verdi’s Aida honoring the 150th anniversary of the opera’s 1871 premiere in Cairo, Egypt. “Muti and the Arena is a combination of two internationally famous names in the world’s largest open-air theater,” said Federico Sboarina, president of the Arena di Verona Foundation and mayor of Verona. “For Verona, this is an extraordinary opportunity that we are offering our large, important public, and it enables us to ensure a top-grade celebration for Aida, the emblematic opera of our festival seasons.”

Muti has conducted the Opera di Verona on only one other occasion: Aug. 7, 1980, in a special performance of Verdi’s Requiem, dedicated to the victims of a terrorist bombing in Bologna. The 2021 production of Aida features cast members who also performed the work with the Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 2019, including Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris and Francesco Meli as Radamès, as well as other singers familiar to CSO audiences, such as bass Riccardo Zanellato and baritone Luca Salsi.

TOP: Riccardo Muti conducting at the Rocca Brancaleone in Ravenna, Italy in 1990. | Photo: ©Montanari Tazzari