FLORENCE, Italy — It is high summer: the air buzzes with the song of cicadas and the streets are teeming with tourists. ATMs run out of cash by noon. Scantily clad visitors, wilting in the midday heat, are required to rent plastic cover-ups for one euro before they enter Santa Croce, the great basilica at the heart of the city where Michelangelo and Rossini are buried. But Riccardo Muti is a picture of cool composure as he perches on a sofa in his hotel on a quiet street just around the corner from the house where he and his family lived years ago, when his international career was just beginning. He has returned to Florence in July to celebrate an important milestone, the 50th anniversary of his professional debut as a conductor, with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. To mark the occasion, the celebrated festival, which gave Muti his first important post as principal conductor in 1969, is presenting two concert performances of Verdi’s Macbeth, the opera Muti led in Chicago in 2013, and a work he has been associated with throughout his career.
“In the Macbeth that I’m now doing in Florence, the basic element is the same interpretation of many years ago, but if you compare, it’s completely different,” he says, in an expansive, reflective mood. “The roots are the same, but all the experiences of my life — positive and negative, suffering, joy, friends, enemies — make you a different person over the years.”
In five decades, Muti has risen to a position of unusual power and prestige in an increasingly commercial field, and he has developed a reputation as a musician of strong, unbending principle and discipline, a rarity in today’s celebrity-driven culture. Between the two Macbeth performances, he raced back home to nearby Ravenna, a small, historic city with eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, so that he could work — he spent the day studying the score of Paganini’s D Minor Violin Concerto, which he would conduct the next week for the first time in many years — and enjoy the luxury of sleeping in his own bed.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is the fifth organization Muti has led in his 50-year career, following the Maggio Musicale, the London Philharmonia, the Philadelphia Orchestra and La Scala, for which he served as either chief conductor or music director. In his 2010 autobiography, he called Chicago “the final test of my artistic life.” He had intended to shift gears after 19 years at the head of La Scala. “I thought that was enough time devoted to music directorship,” he says now, “because a good music director is somebody who really has to give time, care and attention to his music organization, and of course to his musicians — not only as artists, but as human beings.”
Then the Chicago Symphony began to tempt him, particularly after he and the orchestra spent two weeks together on a European tour in 2007. “Something happened artistically between us,” he says. “The way they responded to my musical ideas and the sense of family that we immediately created together pushed me to accept this very prestigious commitment. But I was really thinking that this is the last one,” he says, not because of his age, he is quick to interject (he turned 77 in July), recalling that the French conductor Pierre Monteux accepted a contract for 25 years when he was 90 (“maybe it was a joke or a very optimistic view of his future,” he says with a smile). But in Chicago, as in each of his previous positions, he was persuaded by a simple, remarkable fact: the musicians themselves made it clear they wanted him, “not the superpowers above — no politicians, no agents, no managers.”
Muti is something of a rarity in today’s publicity-driven music world in that he stands at the peak of his profession and yet has no manager or agent to take care of business. In many ways, he is a throwback to a simpler time when the pace was slower — conductors spent years studying music before they even picked up a baton; engagements were booked weeks or months, not years, in advance — and the travel less frenetic and less global. At both Macbeth performances, the Florence audience roars with approval and affection each time Muti takes the stage. At the end, they will not let him go until he steps to the apron to speak — about the significance of the occasion, of course, but also, characteristically, about music, in this case, his campaign to have the remains of Luigi Cherubini, a seriously underappreciated composer he has long championed, transferred from Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris back to Florence, his birthplace, to rest in Santa Croce. (Two weeks later, a petition posted on Change.org had more than 25,000 signatures.)
Italians love Muti not just because he is one of their own, but also because they recognize him as a figure of unique musical authority and dignity in an industry increasingly skewed toward popular entertainment — “perhaps the last ‘big beast’ still prowling the classical music world,” as Richard Morrison writes in The Times of London that same week. A few days later, Manuel Brug, the longtime critic for the German newspaper Die Welt, calls Muti an “Italian national hero of art.”
After spending 12 years in Philadelphia and now another eight in Chicago, Muti knows very well that the United States differs in a fundamental way from Italy. “We have an advantage here,” he says, gesturing out the window toward Brunelleschi’s terra-cotta dome poised atop the Duomo, to the street where Dante once lived. “At every corner, you are surrounded by history,” he says. “Every corner tells you where you come from.” People here spend their lives amid art and beauty, and it changes how they feel about it. “It’s part of them,” Muti continues. “In Italian, the word is convivenza, to spend your life together.”
“I think that America has the privilege of having some of the greatest orchestras in the world,” he says, “but the society still doesn’t understand the importance of these musicians. And this is a problem that starts with elementary school: education, education, education,” he says, broadening the tempo to emphasize each word, as he does at the dramatic peak in a work of music. The Vienna Philharmonic, he says, is considered “a treasure of the nation”; the owners of certain Viennese restaurants still bow out of respect when orchestra members walk in. Years ago, when he first came to the United States, Muti sometimes felt that orchestra players were treated like musicians in the 18th-century court of the archbishop of Salzburg: “You come in like slaves, you play and you go,” he says. “Musicians have a big responsibility,” he continues. “They don’t entertain people, they educate. Music is a mission, and to be a good musician is like being a missionary. But to give people the possibility to do this for 40 years, musicians have to feel that they are bringing good to society.”
That was another reason the Chicago Symphony lured him at this point in his life. “In Chicago, there was the opportunity not only to make music with this great ensemble, but also to devote my energies to people who need to receive the spiritual and cultural food of music.” Year after year, he has taken members of the orchestra to play for young people — teenagers mostly — confined to correctional facilities in Chicago and in far-western Warrenville and brought the entire Chicago Symphony to give free concerts in the Apostolic Church of God on the South Side and Morton East High School in Cicero. “Every time I brought music to the juvenile detention centers or to churches in communities that don’t come to the concert hall, I’ve seen that people receive music with great attention, with great enthusiasm and with great participation.
“And,” he says with obvious pride, “sometimes this crowd of people who have never been in a concert hall responds to your performance with much more intensity and understanding than the so-called sophisticated audience.”
When Muti flies around the world, to conduct in Shanghai or Sydney or Kiev, where he led his annual Roads of Friendship concert in July, he routinely stares at the electronic map that tracks the plane’s progress, charting journeys he never dreamed possible as a little boy in Molfetta on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy. “If you have strong roots,” he says, “you can be born in the smallest town in the hills in Calabria, and you can go anywhere in the world.”
Today, Muti talks as freely with a fan on the Chicago streets, whom he may instruct with the story of how pizza Margherita got its name, as with Queen Elizabeth II, who spent 27 minutes chatting with him in his La Scala dressing room — protocol had dictated seven — and was captured by a photographer sharing a moment of joyous laughter with him. (She later made him a Knight Commander of the British Empire.) “We are all the same people,” he says. “That is important. And it is the same when I play in Carnegie Hall, or in the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, or in Reno [Nevada], or Cicero near Chicago. I give it the same importance, because the public is the public. There is not a category A and a category B. They all deserve the same respect and attention.”
In June, at the end of his eighth season with the orchestra, Muti led performances of Prokofiev’s tough and knotty Third Symphony, a rarely programmed work that he had conducted in Orchestra Hall in 2007, when he returned to the Chicago Symphony for the first time in 32 years. In rehearsal in June, he told the orchestra that Prokofiev’s symphony would be something of a yardstick, a gauge of how things were going, a benchmark of what their years together had brought.
Sipping a glass of mineral water in his Florence hotel in July, he is happy to share the verdict: “The first time was very good. I felt the power of the orchestra and the precision of the orchestra. This time,” he said, with obvious satisfaction, “I was much more impressed by the subtlety of the orchestra. The power was still there, but a little bit less aggressive — even the fortissimi were much more round and musical, without any doubt. But the orchestra was singing, even in the most brutal music that the symphony requires.”
“Every good conductor should have a sense of what sound he wants,” Muti says, thinking back over his Chicago years. “But the secret is that you must give the musicians your idea of your sound without changing the personality of the orchestra. And this is the most important thing: the balance between your concept and the instrument you have. If you have a Stradivari in your hands and you are a great violinist, you produce your sound, but this is also the sound of the Stradivari, and if the same violinist takes a Guadagnini, he will express his ideas and his concept of sound, but the instrument will also tell him, ‘I am a Guadagnini, you cannot make me sound like a Stradivari.’ ”
Dropping the musical analogy, Muti says simply, “I’m sorry for the comparison, but being an Italian, I am a Ferrari fan. And I would say the Chicago Symphony is a Ferrari,” he says, speaking with the authority of someone who knows exactly how to maneuver the Italian Autostrade with expert finesse and speed. “If you have another car, you cannot have the same results. This orchestra has given me the possibility to experience complex, difficult repertoire in a way that other, less virtuosic, orchestras could not.”
He also acknowledges that the orchestra does not sound quite the same as the one he inherited. “At one time in Europe, we always heard about the brass of the Chicago Symphony. I think that now the orchestra is much more balanced between the sections. The brass are still fantastic, but we have a fantastic string section, and a fantastic woodwind section, not to forget the fantastic percussion and timpani section. Without losing this, shall we say, American precision, it has more of a European versatility and softness.” He pauses to deliver the punch line: “In a word, it is an orchestra today that sings more.”
But canta, as Toscanini used to plead over and over in his rehearsals with the NBC Symphony, doesn’t mean just “to sing a song,” as Muti puts it. “Canta means to express the feeling and the melody, not only from the heart, but also from the stomach. The vibrato of the violins should not come from the fingers, but from the deepest part of the body.” Muti, who often sprinkles his conversation, in the most natural way, with Latin phrases that have informed him as a person as well as a musician, introduces St. Augustine: Cantare amantis est. “To sing is something that belongs to somebody who is able to love,” he translates. And then, quoting from The Divine Comedy, he turns to Dante: L’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. “Love,” Muti says, glancing out at the streets the poet once walked, “is able to move the sun and all the other stars.”
Muti is perpetually homesick, not just for Ravenna, where he lives today, but for the land of his childhood — a place where he knew Christmas was coming, not from holiday lights and shop window displays, but from the scent of mandarins, the fruit of the season, perfuming the air. “It’s very poetic, but it’s gone today, even in Molfetta,” he says ruefully, “because everything has become commercial.” But, perhaps to his surprise, he has found himself very much at home in Chicago. “I happen to love Chicago,” he says. “I think it is a spectacular city, with fantastic architecture and great universities, and even if the city is so big, you can still have the sense of a small town where people can walk, and meet in the street and talk. In Chicago, it is still possible to have human contact.”
For years, he has methodically crossed off each professional engagement on his calendar, one by one — “like a prisoner,” he laughs — inching closer to the day when he will lay down his baton. But at the moment, his eyes are on his future with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: “I want to make the instrument better and better, and to make the life of the musicians better and better. If you have a better life, you make better music.” In February, he signed an extension of his contract, which will keep him at the helm of the Chicago Symphony through the 2021–22 season. “We love each other very much,” he says, “and these years have gone very, very fast.”
But he is acutely aware that the orchestra will eventually have to find a new music director, and as he points out, the tradition of the Chicago Symphony has been to appoint conductors who are very well established, with an international name — and they are few and far between today. Clearly, he does not relish turning over the keys to a flashy newcomer.
In Florence, after the first Macbeth performance, there is a party that stretches into the night, full of friends and family, and including the leaders of several international music organizations, as well as members of Muti’s cast — Luca Salsi, who sang the title role in Orchestra Hall in 2013; his Lady Macbeth, Vittoria Yeo, who will appear under his baton in Verdi’s Requiem here in November, and Francesco Meli, who was also in the Chicago Macbeth and will sing Radames when Muti conducts the orchestra in concert performances of Aida in June. Muti is presented with a monumental chocolate cake, which he cuts with customary resolve, crowned by a “50” bigger than numbers on a football jersey.
The next day, when I ask him about the legacy of these 50 years — about how he thinks he will eventually be remembered — he deflects the question at first and jokes about his overblown reputation as a strict taskmaster, a stickler for following exactly what’s in the score. “People think that I want the eighth note mathematically correct,” he says. “It’s just that I don’t want performers to completely change the text for their purposes or their benefit. If Verdi writes a half note instead of a quarter note, there is always a dramatic reason that is connected with the words. It’s not about mathematical precision.”
Over the years, Muti’s refusal to make cuts or transpose arias or interpolate high notes has sometimes been seen as rigid and imperious, particularly in a time in the world of opera when singers and directors often get their way. “Verdi made it very clear in his letters,” he explains, “There is only one creator: the composer, not the interpreter. So the interpreter really should be a servant, not a co-creator.”
Muti’s new “war,” which he has been waging for some time now, is with the “strange inventions” of stage directors in the opera house, which is why he has just one staged opera on his calendar, opening in November in Naples, Italy (and later moving to the Vienna Staatsoper): Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a score he knows note by note and word by word, which will be directed by someone he trusts — his daughter Chiara, who regularly works as a stage director in Europe and shares her father’s concern with trying to understand what the composer had in mind. Today, he says, opera in concert form — such as the trio of Verdi’s Shakespearean operas he has led with the Chicago Symphony, and the upcoming Aida in June — is often preferable: “People can listen to the music, and to the words, and not be disturbed by visions that have nothing to do with the music.”
He cites Arnold Schoenberg — “not the most conservative person in the world,” he is quick to point out — who warned Wassily Kandinsky, the great artist who also tinkered with set design, to be careful that what you see in an opera production doesn’t disrupt what you hear. In 2015, Muti started the Italian Opera Academy, held in Ravenna each summer and now expanding to Tokyo, to coach young conductors in the preparation of an opera and to teach singers how to become a personaggio by taking their cues directly from the score rather than from a director’s vision. “The regie,” he says, referring to the staging, “should be an extension on stage of the musical ideas.”
Muti stops finally to consider my question about memory and legacy. “Certainly I’ve tried to be honest in my artistic life,” he says. “I’ve never used music for purposes other than artistic. People will judge what I have done. The world goes so fast now,” he says wistfully, “even with great conductors like Toscanini or Karajan, we remember the names, but more and more they disappear.”
Yet that same week, Muti was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize that is Japan’s answer to the Nobel Prize — it is awarded only in fields not covered by the Nobel committee — and the latest in a series of important honors he has been given in recent years that suggest his work has had a lasting impact, that it will not be forgotten. The citation begins, “With his prestigious goals as a conductor, Riccardo Muti is considered ‘The Maestro Among Maestros.’ ”
Phillip Huscher has been the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1987.