Muti raises his flag over the Chicago Symphony

Riccardo Muti, larger than life in Chicago. (c.N.Malitz)


It was a banner night for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the spectacular public welcoming of conductor Riccardo Muti as its 10th music director. But more than that, at a time when American orchestras are reeling from the effects of an economic slump, it was a profoundly encouraging sign of the health and prospects of classical music.

The free concert Sunday evening at Chicago’s handsome Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park drew not just a big crowd, it drew a sea of humanity – upward of 25,000 people, according to orchestra spokeswoman Rachelle Roe. Some 12,000 filled every seat and patch of ground from the pavilion outward across an adjacent green dotted with high-quality overhead loudspeakers. A still larger throng spilled out over the surrounding plazas where they could enjoy at least an auditory connection to the event.

This was Festa Muti, as thousands of brightly lettered flags in the hands of listeners attested. What’s more, the next month has been officially dubbed Festa Muti by the Chicago City Council, which also temporarily renamed a stretch of South Michigan Avenue – from Millennium Park past Orchestra Hall – as Muti Mile. And lest anyone fail to notice just who is the city’s man of the month, a giant banner bearing the maestro’s image hangs down the front of Symphony Center as a reminder.

At the center of all this hoopla was the 69-year-old Italian conductor, who had finally succumbed to the Chicago Symphony’s relentless entreaties to assume artistic leadership of an orchestra whose distinguished history of leadership goes back through the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Sir Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner. Muti lost not a moment in demonstrating to his super-sized audience that he is up to that tradition.

Known as a great Verdi conductor, Muti led off with the Overture to “La forza del destino,” and in the very first, emotionally suspenseful phrases drew from the CSO a tension and controlled opulence that indeed invoked this orchestra’s distinctive lineage. Turning next to Liszt’s symphonic poem “Les Preludes,” Muti tapped the CSO’s section-by-section virtuosity, notably an elegant woodwind sound that registered even in this al fresco setting.

Muti the dramatist showed his colors in a riveting account of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture “Romeo and Juliet,” which left one wishing only to hear those vibrant strings and singing winds again in the greater intimacy of Orchestra Hall. For Muti’s finale, an expansive turn through Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” a double phalanx of brasses at the forward corners of the stage augmented those at the rear of the orchestra to light up the night in the stentorian peroration of “Pines of the Appian Way.”

Then real fireworks erupted at the rim of the pavilion, an exclamation point to the whooping ovation.

Finally, the new man in town addressed his new admirers with characteristically droll humor. Muti said it’s usually a better thing when the conductor does not speak – especially in rehearsal, where “after three words he’s speaking nonsense.” Turning to the orchestra for confirmation, he asked: “E vero?” (Isn’t it true?)

But Muti had a real message for his audience: to thank them for such a show of support for the Chicago Symphony, to remind them of the greatness of their orchestra and to point out that while a concert “in fresh air” is a pleasure, the authentic experience awaits at Orchestra Hall.  That’s where Muti makes his official debut as music director Sept. 23.  But here, in the fresh air, he had already won Chicago.

Here are three videos of Chicago Symphony musicians rehearsing with Muti and talking about him.

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Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.