Prelude to a legend: Riccardo Muti in Chicago


(c) Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti has made an auspicious beginning as music director of the Chicago Symphony. 


With the maestro’s illness-plagued start now receding into a footnote, Riccardo Muti’s music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is swiftly blossoming into something special. The level of music-making I’ve witnessed in recent weeks, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and at Carnegie Hall in New York, points to a singular meeting of minds, a rapport between conductor and orchestra that is fundamentally creative, at once artistic and intellectual.

At age 69, Muti has nothing to prove musically but everything to give, and he appears visibly eager to share his broad mastery with a burnished ensemble whose sense of rank reflects historical associations with the likes of Sir Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner. All the early evidence suggests the Muti-CSO era will stand besides those others in the orchestra’s storied annals.

The wider musical world will soon experience this remarkable union first-hand when Muti leads the orchestra on their first tour of Europe together late this summer. In something of a test flight, Muti conducted the CSO in three different programs at Carnegie Hall in mid-April that drew ecstatic responses from sold-out houses. When Muti walked onto the Carnegie stage opening night, to lead a concert version of Verdi’s “Otello,” the audience erupted in a hero’s welcome. Here was the conductor the New York Philharmonic only too publicly sought but did not land. More significant, and even more demonstrative, was the ovation that followed the performance. In support of a solid cast of solo voices and its own fine chorus, Muti’s orchestra reproduced that colorful and minutely expressive Verdian canvas in exquisite detail and unbounded passion.

The narrative freedom that Muti gives the CSO was evident again when the orchestra returned to its own house in May to play Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and a suite compiled from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The heady contrast between rapture and finesse in the Strauss was answered by brilliance and tenderness in the Prokofiev. Both works gloried in the completeness of the CSO sound: the finely contoured strings, the elegance of the wind choir, the controlled power of the brass department.

While Muti’s guiding hand is always there, and he can be quite animated, he never appears self-indulgent, never over-conducts. How naturally the CSO responds was clear from the start, notably in a program of Haydn and Mozart under the new music director played in October 2010, before Muti’s health problems arose. In those stylish, poised performances, the merest flick of that baton drew pin-point shafts of musical light. There is much light to come in Chicago.