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CSO’s Riccardo Muti a man for all seasons

Music Director Riccardo Muti is residency with Chicago Symphony Orchestrthrough Saturday. | Sun-Times files

Music Director Riccardo Muti is in residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Saturday. | Sun-Times files

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Chicago Symphony
Orchestra and Chorus

Music of Schubert
and Ennio Morricone

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: (312) 294-3000; cso.org

Muti renews contract with CSO

Updated: February 4, 2014 11:12AM



Last year, at a private luncheon with Pope Francis organized by the president of Italy, Riccardo Muti, addressed the newly-elected pontiff. “Santita (Holiness), Do not forget all of the great music that is the Church’s gift to the world!”

This January, at a press conference in the Canary Islands, Spain, leading a tour of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Italian music director chastised European societies for pouring money into sports facilities and competitions and letting culture fend for itself.

“The role of [opera] theaters in Italy, especially in the south, in Rome, in[Naples], in other cities and towns, is in great peril. Culture around the world is in great peril,” Muti said in an interview last week in his Orchestra Hall dressing room.

Returning to Chicago after the CSO’s successful tour to the Spanish province off the west coast of North Africa; Essen, Germany, and Luxembourg for his two-week residency here (which runs through Feb. 8), the 72-year-old Muti was buoyant and brimming with plans but also touched by “melancholy” over the position of music, art, theater and literature around the world.

“Even love and courtship themselves are in danger,” Muti said. “When I was a boy and a young man, we hoped over weeks and even months for a look, a sigh from someone we loved. Now with SMS [text messaging] it is reduced to an immediate, ‘Te amo,’ ‘I love you.’ And in fact, it is worse than that. Now I am told one just makes the SMS, ‘t.a.’!”

That’s Muti. The passionate believer in the power of music and art to change lives — delivering his message to popes (he has played concerts for two of them, been knighted by one of them, though “no concert yet for Francesco!”), governments and journalists and teenage texters.

The music director did not wish to comment on the current search for a new CSO president in anticipation of Deborah F. Rutter’s move this summer to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., other than to say that he continues to work “very closely” with Rutter and artistic vice president Martha Gilmer on program planning and the like.

Muti looks more and more these days for ways to connect past and present. He wonders if the current merging and melding of cultures and nationalities will produce a kind of music that “will be relevant to listeners today” while “exploring the many layers of the past, the many kinds of melody, harmony, chanting, rhythms of all of these societies throughout history.”

The unusually scored concerto for two cellos and piano by Sicilian cellist-composer Giovanni Sollima he and the CSO have commissioned that had its world premiere performances at Orchestra Hall this past weekend, could be an example of this.

“Sollima is curious about the popular and the scholarly,” Mutu said. “He has looked at the many waves of immigration and conquest in Southern Italy over the centuries — even Balkan influences — and pulled them together in a very effective way.” Sollima was joined by Yo-Yo Ma, himself an activist for music as well as a globetrotting performer, as soloist in the piece, “Antidotum Tarantulae XXI.”

The full survey of Schubert’s symphonies, including several very rarely played, and a great mass new to the CSO, touches similar chords with Muti. “Schubert is thought of by many as sweet,” Muti said. “But never forget that he is also tragic.”

At a rehearsal open to senior citizen groups and critics last week, Muti polled the audience afterwards as to whether, after hearing both of them, they liked the “sunny” Third Symphony or the “sad” Fourth more. The Third won out. “People don’t want to hear the tragic sometimes,” Muti said. But both were eclipsed by the cheers for the two-cello work. “That gives some hope for openness,” he added.

The Schubert survey this week (and continued in the spring), also is key to Muti’s efforts to develop a unique connection with the orchestra, midway through his fifth season as music director. Some of these works are not yet “in the fingers” of CSO players, entering the repertoire here only in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some 150 years after their composition in Vienna. Interestingly, too, their most recent CSO performances have all been led by Italian conductors — Muti himself, and two renowned former principal guest conductors, the late Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini.

“To play the later, more famous, works of Schubert, you must understand the ‘leggerezza,’ the lightness of the earlier works which have great appeal to the Italian” ear and style, Muti said.

“The sound is still that of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” he added. “As it should be. But I feel that I am able to add also the lightness that we have established in my 40 years together with the Vienna Philharmonic.”

Muti takes special pride in the development of the CSO’s string sound — not so much attended to until Muti’s predecessor Daniel Barenboim, interim leader Bernard Haitink and Muti himself put greater focus on hiring and demanding rehearsals. While praising the overall condition of the orchestra (“We should be touring more and more: the words “Chicago Symphony Orchestra” represent success around the world even before a ticket is sold”), the music director recognizes that there are always areas for improvement and positions that need refreshing.

“You see the sloping of my shoulders?” Muti mugged. “It is the weight on them of the part of the job that no music director enjoys but that still must be done, attending to the membership so that each seat in the orchestra is held by the best possible person.”



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