What's Muti Got that Other Conductors Don't?

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Editor's Note: On Tuesday Riccardo Muti won Spain's Asturias Arts Award.

Earlier this month, I heard two of the Chicago Symphony programs that Riccardo Muti conducted in Carnegie Hall – the concert performance of Verdi’s opera Otello, and the concert that included Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Both were extraordinary examples of music-making, which left me wondering: Why is this conductor different from all other conductors? I put that question to a former cellist from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who happened to be sitting next to me at the first concert. His answer was, “Only one thousand and two hundred different ways, but it’s impossible to put into words.”

So I sought out people who could put it into words. Susan Spector plays second oboe at the Met, where Muti got glowing reviews for conducting Verdi’s Attila last year. She says when Muti conducts opera, he insists that all the elements – soloists, orchestra, and chorus – be integrated into a “collective whole.” That was clear in Carnegie Hall, where Muti “played” the Chicago Symphony as though it were a single instrument, and the enormous Chicago Symphony Chorus responded with the precision (and exquisite diction) of a single singer. According to Spector, Muti doesn’t consider soloists in an opera to be any more important that anyone else. He doesn’t let them sing anything the composer didn’t write (no interpolated high notes!), and any hint of divadom risks a reprimand in front of the entire company. 

Barbara Govatos is a long-time first violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In all the years Muti spent as music director there, Govatos says “the love never abated,” thanks to his “very special rapport with an orchestra.” Muti expects his players to give as much as he does – which is plenty – and thanks to his passion for music/music-making, knowledge of the score, and lively sense of humor, for Govatos, rehearsals seemed to fly by. Lawrie Bloom, bass clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony for 31 years, seconded that. Bloom says that when Muti took over as music director in Chicago last fall, it rekindled his love for playing with the orchestra. 

Everyone agreed that – as Govatos put it – for Muti, musicians “play beyond their means, because they want to, for him.” Bloom finds performing with Muti so extraordinary because even though the maestro has complete control, the musicians feel as though they have absolute freedom. Julian Rodescu, a basso profundo who’s performed at La Scala with Muti, was positively poetic about why this conductor is different from all others: “Singing with Maestro Muti is like a ride on a magic carpet. You can fly higher than you ever thought was possible." To which I would add that everyone in attendance reaps the benefit.

Has a conductor ever knocked your socks off? Can you articulate why?