Riccardo Muti-Chicago Symphony Courtship Appears to Get Serious

Classic Arts News   Riccardo Muti-Chicago Symphony Courtship Appears to Get Serious
Moving beyond what had been little more than informed speculation, the relationship between conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seems headed into a serious courtship phase, just possibly aimed at full consummation in the form of the CSO music director post.

Romance and courtship seem to be the operative metaphor here, to judge from the excited articles that ran in Chicago's two major newspapers yesterday. "L'amour, toujours l'amour," wrote Andrew Patner for the Sun-Times, while John von Rhein asked in the Tribune, "Can we expect to hear wedding bells soon?"

The Chicago Symphony has been without a music director since the departure of Daniel Barenboim in June 2006. Since then, Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez have been "minding the store" as principal conductor and conductor emeritus, respectively, providing some artistic continuity as the orchestra conducts a deliberate search for Barenboim's succesor.

Muti had frequently appeared on journalists' lists of potential candidates for the CSO position, but speculation kicked into high gear last month as the Neapolitan maestro prepared to conduct the orchestra in Chicago and on a nine-concert tour of Europe. Those performances were rapturously received by critics and audiences: in Verona the crowd "whipp[ed] itself into a frenzy," according to the Sun-Times; the Munich audience insisted on solo bows for each section; after both London concerts the CSO players themselves stomped their feet in applause for Muti.

Following the final London performance, "Muti and orchestra leaders ... fell over each other publicly praising the connection" between them, as Patner put it in the Sun-Times. "Never in my 40-year career have I ended such a month wishing it would not end," Muti told CSO management and players after that concert, according to the paper, "... I know that I want to have a strong and close relationship with you in the future."

"I can say without hesitation" the CSO assistant principal oboe Michael Henoch told the Tribune's von Rhein, "that the just-completed tour with Muti ranks for me as one of the most successful and fulfilling in my 35 years with the CSO."

CSO president Deborah Card was effusive in her praise, though reticent about the future (as most orchestra CEOs are when speaking in public about a music director search). "This is an extraordinary musician, and we realize we have the potential for an extraordinary relationship," she told the Tribune. "We continue to look at how we can develop this relationship, because our orchestra will need leadership following the time that Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez have laid out for us. Some things need to take a natural course."

"At this point in my life," Muti told Patner for the Sun-Times, "I am sure that nothing happens without a reason. There must be a reason that this great orchestra and I have come together at this moment in our histories. And I am really thinking hard about what this should mean."

These certainly sound like statements of serious courtship. And von Rhein seems so anxious for a marriage that one thinks of a bride's daddy with a shotgun. "The Chicago Symphony should do everything in its power and prestige to lure Muti to Chicago," he wrote, in a Tribune article headlined "It's time for CSO to offer maestro Muti the podium."

The path to musical matrimony is probably not so smooth and quick as that. For example, Muti might or might not be willing to be do the fundraising and cultivating of donors that's typically required of a U.S. music director (Barenboim cited that duty in particular as one of his reasons for leaving the Chicago Symphony position). And he is reported to have rejected all formal job offers from the New York Philharmonic, agreeing earier this year to serve as a sort of principal-guest-conductor-in-effect, with no official title or extended contract.

The 66-year-old Muti has held only one formal U.S. position, as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980-1992. His two-decade tenure as music director and chief conductor at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan ended in loud acrimony in 2005. (Shortly after his departure, Muti told an Italian newspaper that he was "considering an offer" from the CSO, strongly implying that said offer was to replace Barenboim as music director. Within 24 hours, CSO administrators issued a statement saying that what Muti had been offered was a guest-conducting engagement and not a permanent position.)

Anyone with a good Internet connection who's curious about the chemistry between Muti and the CSO can listen in later this week: the first of their two London concerts — of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6,?Hindemith's Nobilissima visione and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy on Oct. 5 at the Royal Festival Hall — will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7 pm U.K. time / 2 pm U.S. Eastern time; the concert will remain available in streaming audio on demand for seven days afterward at www.bbc.co.uk/radio3.

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