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CSO’s Riccardo Muti mum about plans for million-dollar prize

Italian maestro conductor Riccardo Muti Chicago Symphony Orchestr(L) receives Birgit NilssPrize from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf (R) during Birgit

Italian maestro conductor Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (L) receives the Birgit Nilsson Prize from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf (R) during the Birgit Nilsson Prize award ceremony at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, on October 13, 2011. The Birgit Nilsson prize is awarded for outstanding achievement in opera and concert to active classical musicians. AFP PHOTO/ PONTUS LUNDHAL: (Photo credit should read PONTUS LUNDAHL/AFP/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\506507593.jpg

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Updated: November 16, 2011 3:39PM

STOCKHOLM — Riccardo Muti is a man of firm convictions. And $1 million-dollar prize is not about to change that.

At a press conference Thursday here, a few hours before the King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf awarded him a statuette and certificate as the recipient of only the second Birgit Nilsson Prize, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director told an international group of journalists he would answer any questions, “except the one I know that all of you want to ask: What am I going to do with the money?”

“For me, this remains very private, very personal,” said Muti, 70, about the money attached to the award, which honors senior musicians of great accomplishment. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, the award’s sponsor, is clearly trying to position the honor as a Nobel Prize of music: it is being given in the same city and being celebrated in the same grand section of the Stockholm City Hall as the literature, science, and economics Nobels.

“If I were to use even the total sum for philanthropic purposes, I would do so anonymously,” he said. “I do not wish to associate my name with the money I might give to help people. That becomes vulgar, no?

“I have helped certain people and institutions in the past, but always privately. I do not wish to associate my name with publicity for this.”

Rutbert Reisch, president of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, added, “Birgit Nilsson wanted to emphasize that the prize is given with absolutely no strings attached. She was also a very private person and very private about money, and she would endorse Maestro Muti’s statement.”

The Swedish soprano, an international star of opera and concert stages who died in 2005, endowed the prize in perpetuity through her estate. She personally selected the first winner, tenor Placido Domingo, 10 years before her death, writing his name on a piece of paper placed in an envelope under her pillow. Domingo received his award in 2009.

Muti’s award was determined by the foundation and a five-member jury of opera figures from each of the five countries in which Nilsson made the bases of her career: Sweden, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Reisch cited Muti’s contributions across the areas of musical performance, education, social outreach, research and advocacy. Above all, he said that the jury emphasized the conductor’s commitment to musical scores themselves and the composers who wrote them.

“Birgit Nilsson wanted to honor those people who carry the art form forward and who leave something behind when they are gone,” he said. “Like Maestro Muti, she believed that her responsibility was to make the work of great creative artists, long since dead, come alive in performance.”

Though Muti said while he regretted never working with Nilsson, she was one of “the artists I have most admired, because of her authority, her dignity and her fidelity. These values are vanishing from our world.”

Rarely attending performances of other musicians, Muti recalled how almost 40 years ago, when he was “a very young music director in Florence,” he took an early morning train to Rome to hear Nilsson rehearse a concert performance of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” with Leonard Bernstein.

“Even though, as a Neapolitan, one does not care to rise early, leave home and travel — we are happy where we are — I had to see this great artist live.”

At a ceremony at the historic Royal Opera House in this Scandinavian city’s center, before a black-tie audience, Muti saluted the many great singers who came from that stage, including Nilsson, tenor Jussi Bjorling, whose centenary anniversary was marked there this year, and baritone Ingvar Wixell, also a mainstay of Lyric Opera of Chicago, who died earlier this week.

“We have no singers like this any more,” he said, with a stern look. “In part because our world, our careers, our lives move too fast. We need to save our culture, our history, for the future.”

Berwyn native and current leading Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang a scene from “Il trovatore,” accompanied by Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who also led the Swedish Opera Orchesta in the overture to “Nabucco” and later, with the Opera Chorus and the Swedish Radio Choir, regular collaborators with Muti, in that work’s “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). Earlier this year in Rome, Muti reclaimed this popular chorus as an anthem for preserving state support for music and culture in Italy.

Guests at a gala dinner afterward, including CSO Association President Deborah Rutter and CSO artistic vice president Martha Gilmer, heard recipients of Birgit Nilsson Scholarships perform a Puccini duet and Swedish art songs.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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