With Strike Ended, CSO Has Breathing Room Under Muti

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Striving for normal, Riccardo Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians run through a Rome-themed program. Community music lovers were invited to attend a post-strike rehearsal on May 2. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

CHICAGO – With a labor deal hammered out in the mayor’s office so hastily that both sides stumbled to characterize it at first, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s seven-week strike came to an end April 27 as music director Riccardo Muti arrived for a spring residency of many parts. The best remedy for the sidelined musicians was to rehearse, and Muti had them back at it quickly in preparation for a double run of concerts through May 11, first with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and then pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

Muti, 77, became music director of the CSO with the 2010-11 season. His commitment extends through 2021-22.

Muti reached out in many ways to those touched by the bruising labor quarrel, the longest in CSO history. The public was invited to attend a rehearsal for a Rome-themed program that will be reprised Nov. 15 at Carnegie Hall. As Muti walked onstage to begin rehearsing, he called out to “the musicians’ maestro” – principal trombonist Jay Friedman – to ask for tickets to a free concert Friedman would conduct as a thank you for community support. At the first break, musicians gathered around Muti to talk about Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which was on the program destined for New York. Embracing normalcy, they chatted about Muti’s approach versus the way former music director Fritz Reiner shaped the score on a recording way back when.

Catching up with CSO’s Susan Synnestvedt (who joined in 1986) and Blair Milton (1975).

The ameliorating themes all week were tradition, continuity, and community, all underscored by Muti. Both musicians and management struggled to grapple with public perception of a deal that did – ultimately – seem like a good compromise, once the facts were clarified. Early assertions by the musicians that they were “victorious” only muddied the waters, as did an orchestra industry pundit’s counterclaim that the employer “scored a big win while musicians walked away with nothing meaningful.”

But the sticking issues – traditional guaranteed pensions and wage raises comparable to other top American orchestras – were resolved through the intervention of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel in a way that made some sense: The musicians accepted a switchover to defined 401(k) pension contributions by 2023, to be managed by the musicians themselves, but with a fear-allaying proviso that musicians employed by the CSO before the end of the upcoming 2019-20 season were guaranteed results equal to the old program. Additionally, wage increases were settled for the next five years, bringing base salaries to $181,272.

Throughout, Muti aligned himself on the side of the musicians. On March 11, Day 1 of the strike, he stood with them on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall and asked that the trustees take care of the players in their quest for higher wages and the continued pension security. Music directors generally leave town and stay out of such disputes entirely. Yet Muti’s expressed opinions were consistent with his forthright stands on one side or the other in European disputes. Steve Lester, the CSO bassist who chaired the musicians’ negotiating committee, suggested as the weeks wore on that the strike’s greater damage would be to the musicians’ working relationship with the executive leadership and board.

Indeed, the CSO staff was taking care to keep the atmosphere calm. Muti’s contract provides some continuity, extending three more seasons through 2021-2022, when he will be 81. His salting of the current ensemble with a new generation of outstanding principal players has made significant progress. Such key positions already filled include principal bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and timpani. The indications are that announcements will come soon for principal trumpet and French horn.

Joyce DiDonato, channeling Cleopatra, will reprise her Berlioz with Muti and the CSO Nov. 15 at Carnegie Hall.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra sound is now Muti’s sound: fleet, flexible, lingering, often theatrical in sensibility, precise without seeming effort, capable of thrilling power. It was encouraging to hear that sound well up on May 2, after the long forced silence, in the program ultimately headed for Carnegie Hall. Berlioz’ dramatic cantata La Mort de Cléopatre was the centerpiecewith DiDonato as the conquered ruler, defiant and electrifying.

Neither DiDonato nor Muti wasted the intrinsic value of a repeated pattern. The first time this Cléopatre sang of her glory days, when she had sailed on the crest of the sea like a goddess (Où sur le sein des mers, comparable à Vénus), the music had the longing of reverie. But each time thereafter, one heard greater fragmentation, disorientation, vowels, howls as the orchestra, too, tightened horror’s grip. To this cathartic psychological and musical thriller, DiDonato and Muti wrought a harrowing soliloquy of stark reflection at the edge of the abyss, putting one in mind of Wozzeck and Macbeth.

The concert eased into its theme with Bizet’s Roma, an opus from the young composer’s time in the city as the winner of the 1857 Prix de Rome. A four-movement symphony, it begins with a Wagnerian chorale for four horns; Theodore Thomas must have wanted to show off his Chicago Symphony brass when he put it on the program back in 1894, possibly the last time Chicago heard this rarity. Its saltarello-like finale, which Bizet marked Allegro vivacissimo, was taken vivacissimo-issimo. The concert ended with Respighi’s Pines of Rome. One cannot imagine becoming blasé about clarinetist Stephen Williamson’s irresistible musings in the celestial “Pines of the Janiculum,” much less immune to the CSO brass in their full majesty along the Appian Way.

Muti learns Denzel B., in the juvenile correctional system, is a cellist.

Amid concert preparations, Muti, DiDonato, and a pair of CSO musicians kept their date with juveniles incarcerated in a correctional facility an hour west of the city, to perform and share stories. The reaction of the teens was startled embarrassment at the power of DiDonato’s voice at close range, but inevitably the music took hold, as music does.

And on yet another day, Muti returned to the theme of the painful strike while participating in the launch of a posthumously published collection of reviews and radio transcripts by Andrew Patner, the longtime Chicago critic and broadcaster, who died in 2015 at age 55. The book – A Portrait in 4 Movements: The Chicago Symphony under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink, and Muti – was the brainchild of longtime CSO trustee John R. Schmidt.

Schmidt was gregarious and relaxed as he introduced Muti, who expressed his affection and admiration for Patner as an important critic and man of culture – “I miss deeply the soul, the mind, and the humor of Andrew” – before referring to the current disruption at the CSO. “The strike for almost two months is over,” Muti said. “But the fact that the music stopped, the damage to the cultural life of the people, these things can become very serious. It takes decades, centuries to build a great orchestra, which sometimes can break in a very short time.”

At the Italian Cultural Institute, CSO trustee John R. Schmidt, musicologist Douglas W. Shadle, and music critic Alex Ross recollect with Muti about the late critic Andrew Patner during the publication launch of Patner’s book. (Vincent Di Sandro)

Indeed, all parties in the extended dispute have been in a tough position. The trustees inherited most of their problems, including the once-reliable pension-funding formula savaged by slow growth in the financial world, and $141 million in old debt related to late-20th-century renovation of the Orchestra Hall interior and extension of the building’s footprint with some performing arts center features. That acoustical result, judged as so-so for the audience, was downright bad for the musicians, who can’t hear each other across the stage.

Neither is the orchestra’s operating staff at full strength, with a demanding music director, a strike to recover from, and a critical national search for development director still underway. Chief executive officer Jeff Alexander, who maintains a low profile, brings an excellent record of real-estate-based solutions on behalf of his previous orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony, that aren’t directly applicable to Chicago.

Leadership: Muti, board chair Helen Zell, CEO Jeff Alexander, prior to the labor dispute.

In an interview, Alexander said that the organization intends to launch a major fundraising campaign soon with three objectives: to tie off the pension transition, defray the old debt, and increase the endowment, which stands at $300 million. Having Muti’s presence as the face of the orchestra in such a campaign will be valuable, but even so, fund drives without a compellingly articulated vision beyond debt defrayment are historically unpopular. And although Muti is the orchestra’s greatest asset, the clock is already ticking on the CSO’s third golden era, which may be ending soon. Muti’s achievement has been comparable only to that of Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti in the orchestra’s history. The Italian conductor often describes the CSO as the equivalent of a Ferrari, musically in the sphere of only the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.

Some CSO numbers look good: The orchestra announced record ticket revenues in the 2017-18 season, selling out 63 concerts while reducing the annual operating deficit substantially. Muti’s contract ensures his presence through three more seasons. And the five-year labor agreement provides, at long last, some breathing room.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for The New York Times and a variety of national publications.

Muti turned pages for CSO trombonist Jay Friedman on March 11 as the musicians began to picket and perform outside Orchestra Hall. (N. Malitz)