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In a gala ceremony Oct. 23, Riccardo Muti received the Praemium Imperiale, often described as the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize, from Imperial Highnesses Prince Hitachi and Princess Hitachi of Japan. Joining Muti, the Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, were his fellow recipients of the 2018 Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award: Pierre Alechinsky, painting (Belgium/France); Fujiko Nakaya, sculpture (Japan); Christian de Portzamparc, architecture (France), and Catherine Deneuve, theater/film (France).

Now in its 30th year, the Praemium Imperiale is bestowed by the Japan Art Association. The award, which honors “outstanding contributions to the development, promotion and progress of the arts,” has become a powerful international cultural symbol, bringing world attention to the arts in much the same way as the Nobel Prize honors the sciences. Prince Hitachi, the honorary patron of the Japan Art Association, also attended a special reception beforehand to commemorate the award’s 30th anniversary.

In his onstage remarks, Muti expressed his joy and pride at receiving the award “because it comes from the imperial family” of Japan. “Today I met the Emperor and the Empress, who were extremely kind and perfectly informed about my activities. I love Japan very much. I find it to be a truly amazing country, with a culture and a social discipline that should be a point of reference for many countries in the world. This is why this award means so much to me — it comes from a country that I respect, that I love, and in which, since 1975, I have performed many times for this unique and extraordinary audience.”

At the ceremony, each laureate received a specially designed gold medal, a testimonial letter from Prince Hitachi and a check for 15 million yen (approximately $136,000).

Muti’s latest honor comes after receiving the Japanese government’s Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star in 2016 for his contributions to promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding between the citizens of Japan and Italy. In 2016, Muti led performances at the Tokyo Spring Festival, marking the conductor’s 150th performance in Japan, as well as the 150th anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy. These milestones also were observed with the issuance of a commemorative stamp.

In 2016, Muti led the CSO on a highly successful 10-concert Asia tour, which included sold-out performances at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan. Muti and the CSO will return to Japan for concerts in Tokyo and Osaka as part of an 11-concert Asia tour from Jan. 19 to Feb. 4. A month later, Muti also will bring his Italian Opera Academy to Tokyo.

Three other maestros with CSO ties have previously won the honor: Pierre Boulez, principal guest conductor from 1995 to 2006 and Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus from 2006 to 2016; Daniel Barenboim, music director from 1991 to 2006, and Claudio Abbado, principal guest conductor from 1982 to 1985. Other winners in the music category have been Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Ravi Shankar, Oscar Peterson, Martha Argerich, Steve Reich, Alfred Brendel, Seiji Ozawa, Plácido Domingo, Arvo Pärt, Mitsuko Uchida and Youssou N’Dour.

TOP: Riccardo Muti shakes the hand of His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi of Japan as the maestro receives the Praemium Imperiale. | Photo ©The Japan Art Association/The Sankei Shimbun.