In mid-January, Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra embarked on their second tour of Asia and eighth international tour together since 2010. The occasion also marked the orchestra’s ninth tour to Asia and the 61st international tour in its history. With 11 concerts in five cities (Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Osaka), Muti and the Orchestra once again had the opportunity to act as cultural ambassadors as they dazzled audiences on the other side of the world.

W hen it comes to the world’s leading symphony orchestra … the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a name that has to be mentioned,” read the Beijing Evening News in anticipation of the CSO’s upcoming concerts. It also praised Riccardo Muti “as the representative of the world’s highest level of maestro.”

The CSO and Muti are often referred to with accolades suggesting their status as “world-class,” “world-renowned” and “leading.” What does that reputation mean in a global society? Moreover, how has that reputation been established and how is it maintained?

Certainly part of it is being located in a city that has an international reputation — one with 55.2 million domestic and overseas visitors in 2017, many of whom came to Chicago specifically because of the strength of its cultural institutions — and a city that has long since prided itself on its ethnic diversity, famously celebrated in the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and in which the young Chicago Orchestra and Theodore Thomas, its first music director, actively participated.

While the quality of its music-making has attracted eager listeners to Chicago for generations, the orchestra has also been proactive in reinforcing its position as a leader through now 61 international tours in its nearly 128-year history.

Traveling with 184 people and 18 tons of cargo is no small feat. It takes thousands of hours of planning and careful preparations that begin years in advance. Ask anyone involved in this undertaking, and they will agree: it is well worth the effort — and the jet lag — to share the musical gifts of the CSO with the wider world.

A fter departing from O’Hare on a 12:20 a.m. flight on Jan. 16, the CSO made its first stop at the National Concert Hall in Taipei for two concerts. In the day and a half before the first rehearsal, orchestra members enjoyed some “free” time as they acclimated to their new time zone — 14 hours ahead of Central Standard Time. For CSO principal clarinet Stephen Williamson, viola Youming Chen and principal percussion Cynthia Yeh, that period included teaching master classes at the invitation of National Taiwan University of the Arts. For others, there was sightseeing in the old Taipei market, sitting for interviews with local press, reed making for woodwind players and of course, practice, practice, practice.

Riccardo Muti joined the orchestra on Jan. 19 to rehearse that evening’s program, which included Brahms’ Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. One of the most careful considerations in the planning of a tour is the repertoire, selected by Muti and the artistic planning team to highlight the orchestra’s many talents and to give listeners performances to remember, as hearing the CSO live may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many in the audience. For this tour, the CSO presented three distinct programs. The first was the aforementioned Brahms symphonies, which were heard at each location on the tour. Chicago listeners may recall the outstanding performances of Brahms’ four symphonies at Symphony Center in May 2017. Indeed, the press in Beijing noted the “unique charm” of the woodwinds, the extraordinary unity and “cooperation” of the brass and “warmth” of the strings.

The second program, performed in Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo, paired Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, with their distinct elegance and pathos, have become a calling card for the singular relationship of Muti and the CSO. Chicago audiences are familiar with that special dynamism from the 2014–15 survey of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, as well as many other performances of works by the Russian composer. On the second half of the concert, Sheherazade offered a lush display of orchestral color and drama that lifted up the audience at each performance. “Facing this highly picturesque and narrative orchestral masterpiece, Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought me into a vivid landscape from the very beginning [that was] filled with a palpable dramatic tension,” wrote Yan-Huan Li of the Wenhui Daily News.

The final program of this year’s Asia tour was exclusive to the multi-day residency in Tokyo. Here, Muti led the CSO in two performances of Verdi’s Requiem; the second performance on Feb. 2 included a special celebration to mark his 400th concert with the orchestra. Widely considered today’s pre-eminent interpreter of the music of Giuseppe Verdi, Muti first performed the requiem with the CSO and Chorus at Symphony Center in January 2009; the work has become a symbol of artistic achievement — with two Grammy Awards as proof. Of the recent concerts in Tokyo, Koki Eto of Japan’s Nikkei wrote, “Their thunderous resonance was a reminder of God’s judgment day,” and continued, “The CSO showcased its wide range of expression under the baton of Riccardo Muti. In sensitive movements, there were colors and nuances, and in tutti, glorious sounds filled the hall.”

The performances of Verdi’s Requiem in Tokyo featured an all-star roster of soloists including soprano Vittoria Yeo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, tenor Francesco Meli and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy (each singer has performed with Muti and the CSO in Chicago on other occasions), and the Tokyo Opera Singers.

In addition to these programs, the orchestra always came prepared with encores to give one or two final thrills. Those selected for this tour included the Intermezzo from Giordano’s Fedora and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G Minor. These were happily performed in gratitude for the warm reception and ovations Muti and the CSO received from audiences.

Muti and the orchestra also take very seriously their responsibility to share music with more people beyond the concert hall, in Chicago and on tour. In addition to sold-out concerts, the orchestra participated in several educational and engagement activities presented by the Negaunee Music Institute. These included master classes at the Shanghai Conservatory, community performances by CSO chamber ensembles in Shanghai at a neighborhood senior center and the bilingual Little Bridge International School, and Tokyo’s Meguro Disability Center and Higashiyama Elementary School. An appreciative student at the Shanghai Conservatory told China News, “We often participate in master classes, but this is the first time I have been taught by American musicians. They are not only skilled, but also very willing to communicate, which makes everyone very happy.”

In addition to serving as an ambassador for the city of Chicago, orchestra members and their Italian music director are an extremely cosmopolitan group representing several nations and continents, including Asia. For many, this tour offered a homecoming — an important chance to see family and friends, return to their alma maters and share their backgrounds with fellow Orchestra members. As acting principal viola Li-Kuo Chang observed, “What’s the most rewarding thing? To come back to your hometown with this world-class orchestra. Nothing can beat that experience.”

For all orchestra members and staff, the tour was filled with expressive performances, meaningful educational experiences and opportunities to bring music to thousands of appreciative and eager listeners. At the tour’s end, after months of rigorous, detailed planning by CSO staff, careful repertoire preparation and instruments packed and transported with the greatest of care, the CSO returned home to Chicago after performing 11 concerts in five cities over nearly three weeks.

For Riccardo Muti, offering transformative musical experiences to the world is a critical form of diplomacy. Giorgio Starace, the Italian ambassador to Japan, and his guests attended the first performance of Verdi’s Requiem in support of the orchestra and Muti, who has the distinction of receiving both Japan’s Order of the Gold and Silver Star and Praemium Imperiale, the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize. As Muti told Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, “I have said many times that a great symphony orchestra is an ambassador of the culture of a nation. I think that many times the United States [is] seen outside of the country — not only in Asia but also in Europe — [as] the image of a very powerful country. … These tours give an image of the United States that is much more delicate, much more spiritual, culturally speaking.”

For more tour coverage and photos, visit the CSO on Tour category on csosoundsandstories.org as well as the CSO’s Facebook and Instagram platforms. From Feb. 26 to March 2, Muti and the CSO tour Florida, with appearances in West Palm Beach, Miami and Naples.

TOP: Riccardo Muti greeted throngs of enthusiastic audience members at post-concert CD signings, including one in Taipei, to promote the new CSO Resound release “Riccardo Muti Conducts Italian Masterworks.” | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019