Muti ends 13 seasons with Chicago Symphony Orchestra with praise and honors — and Beethoven

CHICAGO (AP) — Riccardo Muti was in total control to the very end.

He had signaled the last note of his final Orchestra Hall concert as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director on Sunday when several people started to applaud. His back to the audience, the 81-year-old conductor snapped out his right arm and baton, demanding silence to frame Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”

Moments later, he relaxed his shoulders, setting off seven minutes of sustained applause.

“It needs a moment of tranquility to think about,” he said the next day.

Muti’s 13 seasons as music director were celebrated with Sunday’s subscription finale, and he ended his tenure on Tuesday night the way it began: with a free concert in Millennium Park, although the denouement of Florence Price’s Andante moderato and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was played in a smoky haze caused by Canadian wild fires.

His 540th performance with the orchestra and 508th as music director wasn’t a final goodbye. While the search for a successor goes on, Muti agreed to conduct the CSO for six weeks in each of the next two seasons and was bestowed the new title of music director emeritus for life.

Muti first worked with the CSO at the 1973 Ravinia Festival and hadn’t led the orchestra in 32 years before a 2007 European tour. Players responded with 60 letters asking him to lead them and he became the CSO’s 10th music director for 2010-11. He conducted the orchestra for 10 weeks per season in Chicago plus three or four on tour, taking programs to schools and even prisons.

“He’s made it a more cohesive ensemble,” CSO president Jeff Alexander said, “a more lyrical, to be sure, a more flexible ensemble.”

Muti determined 27 orchestra appointments, just over a quarter of the current roster, and listened to auditions for a bass on Monday. He weaved his sound into the legacy left by predecessors Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim. Muti programmed Verdi operas in concert along with Italian symphonic works and living American composers.

“Everybody spoke about the brass of the Chicago Symphony. Nobody spoke about the strings. Nobody spoke about the woodwinds,” Muti said Monday in his photo-filled office beneath the auditorium. “Now the woodwinds are fantastic, and I’m proud that the majority of the woodwinds you have seen are all young, all chosen by me in the auditions. They have a completely different sound. They were always very-well known for Wagner, Bruckner, the German repertoire. So they needed I think to have also some Mediterranean light.”

Born in Naples, Muti also had lengthy tenures with Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (1968-80), London’s Philharmonia Orchestra (1972-82), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92) and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (1986-2005).

“In every place, I have been chosen by the musicians,” he said. “And this is not an expression of arrogance from me, but I’m proud of this. I didn’t have the powerful agent or the powerful politician here and there. No, I am alone.”

He walks on and off stage with shoulders back and chin up, his once black hair now gray and white but still thick and spilling over the collar of his perfectly tailored double-breasted suit. He insists the conductor’s job description is “to go on stage dignified.”

“Maybe I will try to come back different, my dear friends,” he told the audience following Friday night’s concert. “For example, now it’s very fashionable to be a bit more casual on the podium. Maybe I will go on the podium with short trousers, yellow hair.”

He bemoaned the lack of government support of the arts and music education in his final speech.

“Music can help the soul,” he told the crowd of about 8,500 after Tuesday’s Pritzker Pavilion concert. “But governments are deaf — It’s the only thing that they have in common with Beethoven: deaf.”

His insistence on excellence terrified many singers.

“It’s a level of experience, confidence, knowledge that he can he can afford to be his own man and rehearse however he sees fit,” said Donald Palumbo, the Metropolitan Opera chorus master who has collaborated with Muti on CSO performances the last two years. “People know he’s an imposing figure. Certainly some of the new soloists have not sung with him that much. They’re going, `Oh, my goodness, I’m so afraid to make a mistake.′ I said, `You don’t have to be afraid to make a mistake. Usually he’ll scowl at you and then he’ll smile at you right afterwards. I’ve been there. Don’t worry about it.‘”

Muti studied with Antonino Votto, the first assistant of Arturo Toscanini, who played cello at the 1887 premiere of Verdi’s “Otello.”

“So the line — Verdi, Toscanini, Votto and myself. It is a sort of connection,” Muti said. “I belong to another period of making music, of approaching the scores, of asking for a lot of time for rehearsals, especially in opera.”

He rejects expediency.

“You have conductors that arrive at the last moment, they do one rehearsal with the soloist if they are lucky, and that’s it,” he said. “The world is not serious. Everything is fast, fast, fast because maybe it’s the reflection of the world of today. We have to consume immediately, and sometimes you have the feeling that making music has become like a factory.”

Muti endeared himself to the orchestra when he joined players on a picket line during a 2019 strike.

“I did not even think about the relationship with the board of directors. I’m a free citizen. I do what I think that is right,” he said. “My teacher Votto said, `Never compromise with music because in the worst situation you will always have two eggs in your plate.’”

His sendoff was a fortissimo of honors. The CSO board presented Muti with a letter from Verdi to Edoardo Mascheroni, the opening-night conductor in 1893 of the composer’s final opera, “Falstaff.” After Sunday’s performance, principal tuba Gene Pokorny surprised Muti with a “tusch” — a fanfare played previously to recognize only five others in the orchestra’s 132-year-history. The eight cellists presented him with a moving Renaud Guieu arrangement of the prelude and Siciliana from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” they had recorded.

“This was a sort of miracle,” Muti said. “They brought me springtime in the autumn of my life.”

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