Muti brings attitude and promise to Chicago

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Riccardo Muti

If a symphony orchestra is lucky, the era of each music director makes its definitive mark, and thus it is with great anticipation that the Chicago Symphony awaits the arrival of Riccardo Muti as the orchestra's 10th music director.

My most vivid early memory of Muti is from late in his tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where I had been dispatched to do a story for Classical Magazine. I dined with him at Ristorante Il Gallo Nero, which was a favorite of the orchestra's many Italian-American musicians, and it was there that he announced the yet unknown news that he would be leaving the orchestra at the end of the 1991-92 season.

Muti was not a fan of the acoustics of Philadelphia's famed concert hall, the Academy of Music, which most Philadelphians at the time felt was a match for the famous La Scala opera house in Milan. The native Italian was tired of hearing what amounted to him as sacrilege. After dinner we went over to the Academy and stood on the stage, where Muti pointed out the many ways in which the two houses' acoustical spaces were different. (The orchestra eventually moved to a new home, The Kimmel Center.) Muti was also no great admirer of the orchestra's famed "Philadelphia Sound," from the Stokowski and Ormandy eras. Muti claimed that sound was inappropriately applied to music of all historic styles.

Those Philadelphia memories — and the later saga of Muti's intransigence in London  and at  La Scala itself, where the orchestra and staff delivered a no-confidence vote against him in 2005 — left me with the impression of a rigid and aloof maestro perhaps ill-suited to directorships. And so it was a distinct pleasure to put the focus back on music itself when I heard Muti conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in back-to-back performances March 11-12 at Lincoln Center.

I was speechless after hearing his Franck D Minor Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. To be honest, I had written the work off as a tired war horse, and I had wearied of it because of so many overwrought performances. Apparently, so had others, because the Franck hasn't been programmed much of late. But Muti approached it so freshly, with a lean sound, muscular energy and obviously artistic conviction, that it was a revelation. The house went crazy.

I can say just as much for his leading of Verdi's "Attila," which, when I was a student, nearly drove me mad for what seemed tiresomely predictable cavatina-recitative-aria-cabaletta constructions, scene after scene, combined with a truly stupid plot. But Muti's deeply respectful treatment made the work come alive, and it provided thrilling insights into the nature of Verdi's explosive growth in his middle years.

If Muti ruffles a few feathers in Chicago, it will be worth it. I predict the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be in the best of hands.