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

Monday, May 02, 2011 - 05:02 PM

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?

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Comments [10]

Greg from Connecticut

I was lucky enough to live in Philadelphia during the golden age of Muti. Magical. Now i will go back for a concert next month before three major players leave the orchestra, the last remnants of the sound Muti made famous.

Apr. 22 2012 08:07 PM
Robert Marcus from Brooklyn, NY

I heard from a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that Muti is a elitist-ego maniac. I feels his music making has more to do with technical things than with the excitement of moment; the elasticity and tension of making music in the momment is missing. Also, from Norrington, Elliot Gardner (like a metronome). The best for me was Barenboim at Chicago. Exciting Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Boulez. No-one does Carter better than DB. Good things do end.

May. 31 2011 01:04 AM
Ferenc from Queens

Actually, "un-birthday" is from "Through the Looking Glass".

May. 20 2011 11:31 AM
Ed Lubin from FL

Naomi you are wonderful & I adore you & your show (& your opera host work) but Un-birthday is from Alice I. W. & not Winnie the Pooh!

May. 12 2011 03:11 PM
J Lester from Pgh, PA

I would have to say that for me it would be
Mariss Jansons during his PSO days. Or is that Yansons?

May. 11 2011 07:06 AM
Michael Bell from New York, NY

Naomi, I could'nt agree with you more. Riccardo Muti is a musical phenomenon. My wife and I first became familiar with him when we had a subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and we loved every performance. Subsequently, his accomplishments at La Scala are legendary, and every time he came to New York with a visiting orchestra it was always a treat. More recently his performance of "Attila" an early and seldom done Verdi at the Met was a revelation. We also were privileged to see and hear as you were the "Otello" at Carnegie Hall and it was unbelievable, and unforgettable. It goes without saying that there are other excellent conductors in the world today, but he is in a class by himself.

Good for you for posting this blog, and keep up the good work. We love hearing you on WQXR.

Michael Bell

May. 05 2011 08:41 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Maestri Carlos Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Serge Koussevitsky, James Levine and today's contemporary Dudamel all have/or had passionate drive in coordinating all the "forces" in the music before them, whether it is/was opera, symphony or chamber music. That talent is so rare that out of thousands of famous maestri only a very few achieve such warmth, devotion and zeal on the part of the performers to better their own contribution to gratify the maestro and do their fullest best ton the composer's intentions. KUDOS to Maestro MUTI !!!

May. 04 2011 10:12 PM
Steve from Nanuet, NY

I saw the Carnegie Hall Sunday matinee performance. Holy crap, this guy can lead!! Maybe it's my ears but I think Carnegie Hall acoustically is better than Avery Fisher Hall.

May. 03 2011 02:18 PM
Michael Meltzer

Your headline certainly verifies that you do not have a proofreader from the New York Times.
"Don't got ?" You have to be kidding!

May. 03 2011 09:08 AM

Yes. Maestro Muti knocked my socks off in Carnegie Hall the night of my birthday back in '84. Had the great fortune of being in a box seat above the stage on orch right. Learned right then and there that he's a force of nature ... He did indeed make the orchestra sing as one. Haven't heard anything like it since ...

May. 02 2011 05:32 PM

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