Riccardo Muti taking over artistic leadership of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after the departure of music director Daniel Barenboim in 2006 was anything but a sure thing.
After all, the famed Italian conductor hadn’t even conducted the orchestra since 1975. And despite flirting with a possible union with the New York Philharmonic, Muti had made more than one seemingly firm statement that he was not interested in becoming music director again of an American orchestra.
But the leaders of the CSO were undeterred. They brought him to Chicago in the fall of 2007 for two weeks of concerts in Orchestra Hall followed by a two-week trek across Europe. Anybody who attended those concerts could sense the instant connection between maestro and musicians, and by the following May, he was named the orchestra’s new music director.
“From the first moment,” Muti said, “I thought there was something special between me and [the orchestra], like they were waiting for me. And they didn’t know me because the last time had been 32 years before, but it was a chemistry.”
His directorship began in 2010, and despite some health concerns at the beginning, it was extended several times, including an extra year to make up for lost time during the pandemic. He will culminate what by almost any measure has been a highly successful tenure on June 27 with a free community concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
“It has been 13 years of wonderful collaboration musically and as friends,” Muti said during a recent chat in his studio on the lower level of Orchestra Hall that is decorated with memorabilia, including the two Grammy Awards he won with the orchestra for his recording of Verdi’s “Requiem” in 2010. But he made it clear that while he is leaving his post, he is not saying goodbye.
Muti is already booked for six weeks with the orchestra in 2023-24, including the two opening sets of concerts, appearances at Carnegie Hall, and a three-week European tour, and another six weeks in 2024-25.
“Our intent, which thankfully he agrees with, is that he’ll continue to be with us until he can no longer conduct,” said Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
It also seems inevitable that the orchestra will bestow a title on Muti along the lines of music director emeritus, an expectation that Alexander all but acknowledged by saying kiddingly, “Watch this space.”
Alexander confirmed that a music director search committee, consisting of musicians and members of the CSO’s board and administration began meeting a few weeks before the pandemic started, and it has been “very, very active” in the past couple of years. But there is no timeline for appointing Muti’s successor.
“We just want to make certain we select the best person for the position,” Alexander said. “We’re not in a rush to do that. Better to get it right than to do it early.”
When the orchestra hired Muti in 2008, it landed what the New York Times called one of the “last lions of podium glamour,” a conductor with a superb pedigree and links back to a golden age of classical music when titans like pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and soprano Renata Scotto reigned.
By the time Muti came to the CSO, he was 69 years old and had already enjoyed a spectacular career that included leading the Vienna Philharmonic every year since 1971 and serving as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1980-92 and La Scala, Milan’s famed opera house, in 1986-2005.
“He is just one of a very, very few true masters of the orchestra, of conducting, of music, in every respect — all that involves,” said John Sharp, the CSO’s principal cellist who has played under three music directors. He believes the CSO was “unbelievably fortunate” to be able to hire Muti. “The heavens above were smiling on us,” he said.
One of the most obvious changes to the orchestra under Muti’s tenure has been the hiring of 27 new musicians, whom the conductor described as “young, fantastic players.” He pointed in particular to the remaking of the woodwind section, including the appointment of principal oboist William Welter in 2018 and principal bassoonist Keith Buncke in 2015.
When Muti arrived, the internationally renowned brass section had long predominated, and he believes there is a better balance now, with the other sections drawing equal attention.
“I think, now, around the world, they still recognize the quality of the brass, but they now also recognize the quality of the strings,” he said.
At the same time, the orchestra’s sound has become more refined and has what Muti calls a “singing quality” or what Sharp termed a “vocal approach.” This emerged in part from Muti’s unusual concert presentation of six complete operas, including Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” in June 2022, and the complete symphonies of Schubert, whom Muti called a “singing composer,” across the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons.
For the most part, Muti did not attempt any of the experimental initiatives that some other conductors, including Esa-Pekka Salonen or Alan Gilbert, have undertaken elsewhere in recent years, like themed festivals and unexpected, alternative venues.
And his programming could not exactly be called adventuresome, but he did consistently resurrect forgotten gems from the past. And though not known for contemporary music, he appointed six American composers-in-residence during his tenure, including the current one, Jessie Montgomery, and he will have led 16 world premieres by the time he steps down.
“In this respect, I feel I have given a service to this country,” Muti said. “As a European, of a certain age, I could have said, I do Beethoven, Scriabin, Mahler and Bruckner. Let the young American conductors do this. It’s their job. It’s their country. But I did a lot of it and with great care.”
That said, Muti made his biggest impact in the standard repertoire, including performances of all nine of the Beethoven symphonies — what Sharp described as some of the most fulfilling interpretations of those works he has ever been part of. A 2015 performance of the composer’s famed Ninth Symphony has had nearly 44 million views on YouTube, a statistic Muti was quick to cite.
Although Muti can be tough in rehearsals, he tries to keep the mood “legero” or “light,” and he is always quick with a dash of humor, which can also be heard in his remarks during concerts. There has been none of the friction that sometimes develops between conductors and musicians.
“These 13 years with the Chicago Symphony have really been a musical joy for me,” Muti said. “They respect me, and I respect them.”
He made clear that respect in March 2019 when the CSO musicians went on strike for seven weeks. Muti made a point of visiting the picket line and speaking to show his support for his musicians.
Like he has elsewhere, Muti undertook musical excursions to local jails, led the CSO in free neighborhood concerts and took part in a range of educational initiatives, including working with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO-administered pre-professional training orchestra.
In addition, he regularly opened Orchestra Hall to senior citizens, under-privileged audiences and others for concert dress rehearsals. The access to rehearsals is something that conductors are leery of doing.
“This must be the future,” he said. “If we don’t go in this direction, making the public part of the process, then little by little we will lose the younger people, who will go in other directions.”
As for the next music director of the Chicago Symphony, Muti said he has carefully avoided being involved in any way with the orchestra’s search for his successor. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions about what kind of person it should be.
“Many conductors, even famous ones, they can’t fill the halls,” he said. “You need someone who has a name, who is charismatic, who knows the repertoire and knows what it means to be a music director.”
Although Muti made clear that he wants to do less traveling and have more time away from the stage, he plans to continue conducting regularly and has dates with orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic well into the future. And, as noted, he plans to return regularly to the CSO but less frequently and without the demands of being of music director.
“Of course, I will come back because I love this orchestra,” he said. “I believe this is the best American orchestra, without any doubt.”
In the meantime, audiences still have several more chances to see the maestro in action this season, including his much-anticipated presentation June 23-25 of Beethoven’s great choral work, “Missa Solemnis,” which will be his last subscription concerts as music director.
“I love music and I love this orchestra,” Muti said. “In this respect, I feel quite in peace with myself. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have done better. Everybody could do better, but I leave the position of music director knowing that I have done my best.”
Riccardo Muti and the CSO
A significant reason why the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has had a long tradition as one of the world’s premier such ensembles is the top-level quality of the conductors who have served as its music director, starting with Theodore Thomas and continuing with such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim.
Riccardo Muti, who took over the post in 2010 and is scheduled to step down later this month, has continued that rich tradition. Few conductors today are more esteemed than the 81-year-old Italian maestro, who has served as the artistic leader of such august institutions as La Scala in Milan and the Philadelphia Orchestra and received dozens of international honors and awards.
During the influential 1969-91 tenure of Solti, the Chicago Symphony became internationally known for its big, bright sound and muscular brass section. While some of those qualities persist, Muti has brought a more refined, nuanced, and, one could say, European sensibility to its playing. In addition, he has made a point of programming six concert performances of operas, including Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” in 2013 and “Aida” in 2019, extending the orchestra’s repertoire and stretching the musicians’ already prodigious skills.
Here is a look at five highlights from the Muti/CSO era:
- Thirty-two years after first conducting the CSO in Orchestra Hall, Muti returned for a monthlong residency in September 2007 that included two weeks of season-opening subscription concerts and a seven-city, nine concert tour that included the ensemble’s return to Italy for the first time in more than 25 years.
Even though Muti’s appointment as music director was not announced until the following year, the immediate chemistry between the conductor and the orchestra was obvious to anyone who attended those electrifying concerts.
- Muti is revered as one of the great Verdi conductors of our time, so it was not surprising that he chose to mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth on Oct. 10, 2013, with a performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass. He, the orchestra and group of fine soloists offered a gripping take on this massive choral work with its operatic scope and visceral impact.
At the same time, the performance offered a new chapter in the technical reach of the orchestra, with a live transmission to a 22½-by-40-foot screen in the Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and worldwide via more than 40 classical music websites. Muti’s live 2009 recording of the Requiem with the Chicago Symphony earned two Grammy Awards, including best classical album, and best choral performance.
- Touring is an important component of a top-drawer orchestra’s activities, because such trips allow audiences worldwide to experience the ensemble’s playing live, and they serve as a way for the group to reinforce its popular and critical standing nationally and internationally.
Muti has championed such travel as a way to bolster the Chicago Symphony’s reputation, and he has led the orchestra on more than dozen such excursions, including their first tour together to Asia in January 2016. The trip included sold-out stops in Taipei, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul, which are all emerging as increasingly significant classical-music centers.
- There are myriad performances of individual works that stand out from Muti’s time with the orchestra, such as his September 2018 performances of Shostakovich’s biting Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” a work he has long championed, or the February 2015 concerts featuring Mozart’s Requiem.
- More recently, there was Muti’s thrilling presentation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the first of the set of concerts on Feb. 24, 2022, momentously landing on the second day of the Ukrainian war. In moving remarks from the podium, the maestro dedicated the performance to the people of that country and said that “joy without peace cannot exist.”
- Along with the many high-profile moments during Muti’s time in Chicago, there have some meaningful moments out of the spotlight, such as his Sept. 27, 2010, trip to the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois. Since then, the conductor, who has long brought music to prisons as one of his missions, has made visits to youth detention centers an annual part of his activities.
In addition, as a way to expand the orchestra’s reach outside Orchestra Hall, Muti has regularly conducted community concerts around Chicago, such as a free one on Jan. 14, 2022, at Morton East High School in Cicero.