by Nona TEPPER
On April 15th, at Carnegie Hall, the crowd listening to Othello shouted repeatedly, “Bravi!”, and Riccardo Muti took a deep bow. This certainly wasn’t the first time Muti, the current Musical Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has received a standing ovation, and surely it won’t be the last. Once this Naples-born conductor puts down his baton, listeners inevitably rise to their feet, moved by the emotional force of his music, clapping without inhibition for more.
Born in 1941, Muti studied piano with Vincenzo Vitale, and graduated with honors from the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella.
In 1967 he received his first big break. In a conducting competition, the jury of the prestigious Cantelli Orchestra of Milan awarded Muti first prize, and Austrian orchestra conductor Herbert von Karajan rushed to the stage to invite Muti to the Salzburg festival. Muti saw the audience, saw Karajan, and said yes. “I felt I could free myself through the music that day,” Muti said. “There was a pact established between me and the orchestra, an act of love.”
This monumental day struck a tradition in Muti’s life. Each year Muti celebrates his birthday as a participant at the Salzberg Festival, with 2011 marking both his 40th anniversary at Salzberg, and his 70th birthday.
Recent health concerns have critics and fans on edge. In February, Muti had surgery on his jaw. In January, Muti fell from the podium at rehearsal. Movement in his left arm is
“Next time I’ll fall in a different section!” Muti joked.
Despite these recent injuries, Muti continues to keep his baton going. Prior to his Chicago post, Muti conducted for Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Philharmonia Orchestra in
London, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the La Scala Theatre in Milan. Muti attributes his time at La Scala to his early worldwide success.
“I worked on international projects, like the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy and Wagner’s tetralogy,” Muti said. “But I also produced lesser-known authors as well: the 18th century works of Gluck, the Neapolitan works of Cherubini, and Spontini, and the Dialogues des Carmelites.”
In 2003, Muti was promoted in France with a 14-hour radio program, “Journey of Riccardo Muti” (pictured above right during recording). In 2008, Queen Elizabeth II of England knighted Muti. In 2011 his recording of Giuseppi Verdi’s Messa da Requiem won two Grammy Awards, and the Birgit Nilssion Foundation awarded Muti $1 million for his “enormous influence in world music.” Most recently, Muti was awarded the Spanish Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts—the most important cultural award in Spain. In September 2011, his autobiography, entitled First the Music, Then the Words (Rizzoli), will be released.
According to Muti, conducting is about more than entertainment. It is about giving back to the world of culture. In 2004, he founded Luigi Cherubini—a youth orchestra consisting of more than 600 Italian instrumentalists. This orchestra produces concerts under “The Way of Friendship,” an organization that honors cities with extreme historical conflict.
The last concert was held in Triest, Italy. Muti looked to a landscape of mountains and valleys, of land and sea, as a way to promote cultural acceptance.
“The life of a conductor is not a normal life. I don’t want to die as the conductor that had success,” Muti said, in a recent interview with NewCity Music. “I want to die like the person who saw this,” and then pointed to a picture of his recently purchased castle in Naples, Italy. At 70-years-old, the indisputably great conductor plans to spend his days just rehearsing and relaxing, between Chicago and Naples, podium and patio.