It's no secret by now that Riccardo Muti is a man of passionate convictions, especially when it comes to speaking out about the central importance of music to a civilized society. It's a trope central to the Italian maestro's very soul as a world-famous musician who bestrides several nations and several cultures.
It has been nearly a month since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director, 72, signed a new contract extending his CSO tenure through August 2020. In a interview last week I remarked that the rest of the decade looms as a potentially difficult time for U.S. orchestras, what with managements scaling back on concerts, attempting to diminish the power of musician labor contracts, coping with declining attendance and revenue and other problems. How does Muti regard the problems going forward, from the perspective of a European plying American cultural waters?
"I am very worried about the future," the Italian maestro replied. "Orchestras everywhere are facing difficulties because our elected officials don't give enough importance to culture."
It's absolutely vital that American public and private schools create in young children an abiding need for the spiritual nourishment that the arts uniquely can provide, Muti said. "If you instill that sense of importance in children as an integral part of their schooling, they will grow up to need culture as an everyday essential, like bread. Then the problem of orchestras, theaters, museums and ballet companies struggling for survival will end."
An oversimplification, perhaps, but Muti's observations about the essential role the arts and culture must play in any civilized society are to be taken seriously, coming from an international figure as widely respected and admired as he is.
Muti went on to deplore recent acts of violence and social-political disturbances in the world as "signs of a society that is becoming more aggressive, a society without values." Great music may not offer a panacea, but it can provide spiritual balm to suffering humanity, he said.
"At a time when the world is full of bloodshed, society must have the courage to say that one of the weapons we have to make people's souls gentler and more harmonious is music. We have to make a start. Music teaches us how to live in consonanza (consonance) in a world filled with dissonanza (dissonance). Education is not about teaching the national anthem; it is about creating consonance."
Muti has been putting his humanitarian ideals in practice for some years through his "Paths of Friendship" concerts, under auspices of Italy's Ravenna Festival, at various trouble spots in the world.
In July, he is scheduled to lead a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass at the World War I Memorial in Fogliano Redipuglia in the northeast Italian province of Gorizia, home to the nation's largest war memorial. The performance is to be part of the national centennial observance of the start of the first world war in 1914 and will be dedicated to the "victims of all wars."
Video of the maestro's CSO performance of the Verdi Requiem, presented on the composer's 200th birthday on Oct. 10, to date has racked up some 150,000 Internet clicks worldwide, according to a CSO spokeswoman.
Muti's annual public rehearsals with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago are, for him, a means of reaching out in other directions, of helping to build future audiences and a wider appreciation of classical music in general, throughout the metropolitan area.
And so the Neapolitan maestro took to the stage of Orchestra Hall on Sunday evening to rehearse the CSO's training orchestra in excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet music, as prepared beforehand by Civic principal conductor Cliff Colnot, and with the public listening in.
Dressed in a black pullover, black slacks and black and white sneakers, Muti stopped periodically to make corrections and offer suggestions, lacing his remarks with anecdotes and jokes that put the players — all of them eager to do their best for their eminent guest maestro — at ease. At one point he struck a mock-balletic pose to point out the damage clueless choreographers have, in his experience, inflicted on Prokofiev's score.
But the true focus of Muti's remarks to his young charges was that they needed to bring more energy and feeling to their musical interpretation — he couldn't do that for them
"You are all young and full of love — let it show," he implored, baton slicing the air in ecstatic arcs. "Beautiful playing is not enough — it must come from here," he added, pointing to his heart, "rather than here," pointing to his fingers.
Late in the rehearsal Muti voiced displeasure that one of Prokofiev's key expressive markings — the Italian word inquieto (restless) — was lost on the orchestra members. "How can you play it if you don't know what it means?" he asked them. Whereupon the young instrumentalists dug into the passage with a proper sense of unease.
"Bravi, bravissimi!" exclaimed a beaming Muti.
Riccardo Muti will lead concerts of Schubert and Elgar with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. Friday. Principal cello John Sharp is the soloist. Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $33-$260; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
Aussie orchestra returns
The Australian Chamber Orchestra will play no role in the CSO's spring "Truth to Power" festival, but the program given by the ensemble in its return to Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon included works by the three pathbreaking 20th-century composers — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten — whose music makes up that three-week festival in May and June.
Richard Tognetti, the orchestra's lead violinist and artistic director, led his 17 colleagues (including CSO principal bass Alexander Hanna, appearing as a guest) in a compelling program that played to the orchestra's particular strengths. This is one of the most precise, cutting-edge virtuoso string ensembles to be found anywhere in the world. They sounded wonderful on a stage that doesn't treat string sound kindly. The results crackled with a vitality that reflected a shared commitment to the music rather than merely showing off the players' chops, impressive as those are.
The dynamic Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen took part in two of the four works, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rudolf Barshai's arrangement of Prokofiev's "Visions Fugitives."
It would be hard to imagine a cheekier or more incisive reading of the Shostakovich than Mustonen and the Aussies delivered Sunday. Sharing the solo billing was a second CSO guest, principal trumpet Christopher Martin, whose triple-tonguing in the exhilarating finale was simply terrific.
Tognetti added fillips of his own to Barshai's colorful transcriptions of 15 of Prokofiev's solo piano vignettes, retaining some of the originals while layering the piano atop the strings at other times. The music glittered most effectively in this guise, as did Joseph Swensen's violin-and-strings arrangement of Prokofiev's Five Melodies. The latter pieces are not top-drawer Prokofiev, although Tognetti, who took the solo part, dispatched them as if they were.
The concert began with Shostakovich's early, starkly modernist Two Pieces for string octet and ended with a supercharged account of Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," to which the Australian string virtuosos applied intensity in all the right degrees, and at all the right moments. Let's have them back.