On Jan. 1, 2021, Riccardo Muti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s famous 10th music director, will usher in perhaps the most anticipated New Year in many of our lifetimes. He will do so conducting his sixth New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein. When asked by Die Presse how he would respond to not having audience in the hall due to health considerations in response to COVID-19, Muti replied, “I want to go to the podium as always. We Neapolitans firmly believe in fate. My job is to study the program carefully and to be with the musicians during the concert. We will embrace each other through the music.”

The 2021 New Year’s Concert will be broadcast in over 90 countries and followed by millions of radio and television viewers around the globe, making it the largest worldwide event in classical music. “Of course, it’s will be unusual to end a lively polka without applause or a reaction to follow, but we know that we play for millions of people, maybe even more this year because everyone is at home. We will find a way to make the concert a message of peace and love” (Die Presse).

When asked by Manuel Brug of Die Welt what the concert meant to him, Muti acknowledged the invitation as a great tribute from the “orchestra that means the most to me, second only to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where I am music director.” The Vienna Philharmonic’s annual event, a longstanding tradition that dates to the late 1930s, ushers in each New Year with joy and optimism. In 2021, the concert will take on an even deeper meaning. The CSO’s Zell Music Director recognizes the special significance of his upcoming performance, which will be “a welcome symbol of hope after such a tragic year,” as he said in an interview with Pablo L. Rodríguez of Spain’s El País. He added in his Die Welt interview that, “It is a tradition — a rich, convivial and festive greeting to the world — we can especially use it right now.”

Muti is known for masterful interpretations of Vienna’s signature waltzes, marches and polkas by Lehar, Suppé and members of the Strauss family, and his concerts are typically performed for sold-out crowds, certainly the case for Muti’s planned December and January concerts before the Austrian government decided that, due to the recent rise in coronavirus infections, no enclosed public events should take place until after Jan. 6. Muti, however, was able to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein in June for a limited audience and again for the Salzburg Festival’s 100th anniversary season in August.

At the June performances, Muti gave Austrian audiences a preview of his upcoming New Year’s Concerts conducting Johann Strauss, Jr.’s waltz Voices of Spring and Josef Strauss’ polka from Margherita. Peter Jarolin of Austria’s Kurier wrote, “In the cheerful finale  . . . the crisis was overcome with radiance. What a symbol!”

The annual New Year’s gala celebration has been led by the world’s most acclaimed maestros, including Clemens Krauss, Willi Boskovsky, Lorin Maazel, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Seiji Ozawa, Mariss Jansons, Georges Prêtre, Daniel Barenboim, Franz Welser-Möst and Andris Nelsons. Muti has conducted the gala concert five times previously (1993, 1997, 2000, 2004), most recently in 2018. Until 1987, only three conductors, Krauss, Boskovsky and Maazel, led the New Year’s concerts. In 1986, the Vienna Philharmonic musicians decided to rotate the post.

With this, his sixth turn on podium, Muti will become “the busiest New Year’s Concert conductor since the legendary Lorin Maazel era,” wrote the Wiener Zeitung. “The Vienna Philharmonic is a very special musical home to me. In 2021, I will celebrate my 80th birthday, and it will be 50 years since I first conducted this orchestra,” Muti told Die Welt; this singular sixth invitation is the icing on the cake of what will be a special year celebrating Muit’s longstanding relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic.

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, and Austria has become an important artistic homeland for the Italian-born maestro. “The relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic has always been a constant in my life,” Muti has said. “Vienna has always been my second home.”

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 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.”

In a 2018 interview with critic Dennis Polkow for WDCB-FM, Muti discussed the importance of the New Year’s Concert. “When you do the Viennese waltz, you must feel that it is a combination of life and death,” he said. “We must not forget that this music has a nostalgia, a melancholy, that comes from the period, that we are near the end of an empire. Not only do you feel this in the music of Bruckner, but the music of Mahler, and before that, in the music of the Strauss family: that something is about to disappear. And so it’s a combination of life and death, of smiles and tears together. That is the most difficult part of this kind of waltz.” He continued, “Maybe this is one of the reasons on the first of January, this music enters into the homes of every country in the world and fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the New Year because there is a hope for the future that is coming, and yet a nostalgia for the past that is gone.”

When recently asked if he had second thoughts about the concert in the face of the pandemic, Muti replied, “I’ll be careful, but I won’t let it stop me. To spread culture and beauty, that’s my mission, which is also a spiritual one. Music makes humanity better, at least a little bit. I’m not going to fall silent now, of all times!  The most important thing is that the world can still experience something like the Vienna New Year’s Concert.”

Locally, the 37th PBS telecast of this annual concert, Great Performances’ “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2021,” premieres on Jan. 1, 2021, at 8 p.m. on WTTW-Channel 11 and on pbs.org/gperf and the PBS Video app. The concert will also be broadcast locally on WFMT-FM (98.7 and wfmt.com) on Jan. 1, at 10 a.m. Please reconfirm with your local listings.

Crossing Borders Through Streams
In addition to the New Year’s Concert broadcast, Riccardo Muti has made several performances available for streaming. Most recently, this included two performances with the Cherubini Youth Orchestra, of which Muti is founder and director, at the beautiful Alighieri Theater in the Italian city of Ravenna to conclude the Ravenna Festival season. As 24-year-old violinist Valentina Benfenati said in an interview with El País that despite concert cancellations, “We have found new courage, strength, and enthusiasm. Once again, we realize that working in the Cherubini Orchestra and with Maestro Muti can make a difference.”

The latest filmed offering is a new five-episode TV series and documentary produced by Timvision that provides a behind-the-scenes view of Muti’s incredible insights as he coaches young participants of the Italian Opera Academy that he founded in 2015. Aldo Grasso of Corriere della Sera describes Muti as “a river in flood: [teaching] with passion, enthusiasm and the awareness of one fighting for young people,” in the face of enormous challenges. To watch the journey of these young conductors as they learn the intricacies of Italian opera from Muti is to “live a unique and unrepeatable experience,” says Grasso, “it feels like you are breathing that same ageless stage dust.”

It was also recently announced that a performance by Muti and the Cherubini Orchestra at the Court Theater of the Reggia vanvitelliana in Caserta was filmed by RAI and will also be made available for streaming.

To access available streams and video content featuring Riccardo Muti, please visit RICCARDOMUTI.COM.

A version of this article was first published in the December 2020 – January 2021 special e-magazine.

TOP: Riccardo Muti conducts the 2018 New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. | PHOTO by Terry Linke/Vienna Philharmonic