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Sidestepping Mahler, Muti points toward Bruckner and plans that will stretch the CSO

Submitted by on Oct 5, 2011 – 5:13 pm
In an exclusive interview with Chicago On the Aisle, the Chicago Symphony’s music director explains how he makes the familiar sound fresh, reflects on his struggles with Beethoven and calls this promising stop his last.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

It is a Mahler concert, and yet it isn’t, this weekend’s first nod by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the centenary of the composer’s death.

Which explains why music director Riccardo Muti, who tends to keep Mahler at a respectful distance, will be on the podium when the CSO recreates the last concert the composer conducted as music director of the New York Philharmonic in February 1911, shortly before his death.

“I love Mahler, but I’m more interested in Bruckner,” said Muti during an hour-long conversation that touched on a wide range of topics. “Today, everybody conducts Mahler. Mahler pays well. Even if you do not conduct a good performance of a Mahler symphony, the success is still there because except for the Fourth Symphony, all the finales are very loud, very strong. The public generally doesn’t understand if it’s a good performance or not so good — or whether the conductor has gone deeply into the score.”

Four of Mahler’s symphonic works will be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this season with four different conductors. Muti will not be among them. The Italian maestro has fashioned his own salute. Actually, it was Mahler himself who provided Muti with a via italiana into the doings. The last concert Mahler conducted followed an Italianate theme, with works by four native composers – Leone Sinigaglia, Giuseppe Martucci, Ferruccio Busoni and Marco Enrico Bossi – as well as Mendelssohn’s sunny Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”).

Moments of beauty

Yet Muti has some history with Mahler. He recorded the First Symphony with the Philadelphia and the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic, both decades ago. He can also be seen in a YouTube video conducting Mahler and speaking admiringly of the composer. But respect is one thing, say Muti, conviction another.

“I find certain of Mahler’s symphonies to be full of beautiful moments, but also full of moments that don’t take me – five or ten minutes of paradise, then ten or 20 minutes that sound artificial. But every time Mahler uses the voice, as in the ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ or ‘Das Lied von der Erde,’ the music rises to an incredible height. There you can see he was an opera conductor.

“In a world where everybody conducts Mahler, it is better that I leave others to do it. But my attitude toward Mahler can change. I’m not young, but it’s possible I will change my mind and become a Mahler fan. You never know.”

Bruckner is a different story, and Muti says CSO audiences can expect regular offerings of Bruckner’s majestic symphonies in the seasons ahead, starting next year with the Sixth.

“I adore Bruckner,” said Muti, who finds a spiritual rapport in the composer’s elegant craftsmanship and cathedral-like structures. “Very seldom do young conductors do Bruckner because his music is more complicated, more difficult than Mahler. Mahler helps you all the time (with notations in the scores). Bruckner, no.

Avoiding the Missa Solemnis

“When the Vienna Philharmonic starts to rehearse a Mahler symphony, the attitude is professional but normal. When they come to a Bruckner symphony, it’s somehow like a religious experience. Bruckner was always part of their history. Mahler was accepted much later. It was Bernstein (as frequent guest conductor in Vienna) who insisted on Mahler. Bruckner they feel belongs to them.”

Muti’s artistic circumspection doesn’t end with Mahler. When he says he cannot conduct music for which he doesn’t possess whole-hearted conviction or unqualified understanding, the examples he offers can be surprising. Although he intends to make his way through the symphonies of Beethoven, he may be a while getting to the composer’s transcendental Missa Solemnis. Never in his career has Muti conducted Beethoven’s grand Mass.

“Of course, I can conduct the music, but it’s one thing to move the arm, another to convey an interpretation,” Muti said. “I still find some difficulty with certain aspects of this masterpiece. If you’re not sure, it’s better to stay away because it would not sound honest to the public. But before I die, I want to conduct the Missa. It’s an experience I want to have.”

Muti admitted he has hesitated with Beethoven before, notably when he first came to the Ninth Symphony. During that long run-up, he said, he didn’t sleep much for weeks.

“The idea of conducting this masterpiece made me feel arrogant,” he said. “How do you dare to approach such music? The last time I did the Beethoven Ninth, I opened the score and I found a phrase that I had written, from Goethe: ‘The desert is listening to the voice of God, and the stars speak to the other stars.’ The beginning of the Ninth Symphony is like that (he illustrates at the piano) – very cosmic.

“It’s like the beginning of the Mozart G minor (Symphony No. 40). In the first bar and a half you must create a whole world. This is the mystery of music. I don’t think you have to be humble, but if you realize the immensity of these works, sometimes it’s  better if I stay away.”

Making the familiar new

In the relatively few programs Muti has conducted with the CSO, his two illnesses having foreshortened his debut as music director last season, he has demonstrated an extraordinary gift for making the familiar genuinely fresh. To be sure, his way with standard works in part reflects his many seasons in the opera pit. But there’s also clearly more to it.

“I don’t listen to what others have done,” Muti said. “Also, when I open a score, I start to study like I don’t know the piece. For example, the Beethoven Seventh, something we can conduct from the last page to the first, no?” He smiles broadly.  “When I do it again after a while, I always use a new score, unmarked. I start by making a new analysis, of the harmony, the structure, everything. I force my mind to believe I don’t know the piece.”

Muti begins to sing the ultra-familiar opening of the Seventh Symphony, singing each pitch name. “That’s it,” he says with finality. “But not really. So now I start again to look at it. In the three or four years since the last time you conducted this music, you have become a different person with new experiences — some happiness, some sadness, sometimes tragedies, sometimes sickness (he gestures to himself). You’ve become another person with a different view of life.”

Then he interpolates whimsically: “I am Italian, I have this concept of death, something we grow up with. When I was a child, my mother would say, ‘You have to go to bed, it’s eight o’clock, because at 9 o’clock death comes out and walks in the city and takes all the children that are still awake.”

A momentary silence falls between us. I check my watch. It’s still afternoon. I’m good. Muti smiles with his eyes.

His goals for the CSO

In the seasons ahead, the CSO’s new music director intends to build from the mix we’ve already witnessed: the classical masterpieces, a goodly portion of new music and full-length opera in concert. He’s mulling the Mozart Requiem, which he notes hasn’t been performed by the CSO in many years. Repertoire, he said, will be shaped by “music that can help the orchestra enlarge their imaginations and become more flexible,” and he cites last season’s concert version of Verdi’s “Otello” – a huge success here and on tour at Carnegie Hall in New York — as a prime example.

Muti says he’s happy to be at the helm in Chicago for reasons that only begin with “this great orchestra.”

“The atmosphere (within Symphony Center) is very beautiful,” he said. “I think that reflects the character of this city, which I’m learning to love more and more. In Philadelphia (where he was music director from 1980-1992), I was very happy, but it was more like a city that wanted to show that it was aristocratic. Chicago is more solid and concrete.

“The orchestra is like the city. I’m glad I’m here, and this will be the last commitment of my life.”

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Photo captions and credits: Home page: Maestro Riccardo Muti talks with audience members in Lucerne during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s August 2011 European tour. Above: Muti jokes with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the same tour in a rehearsal at the Salzburg Felsenreitschule. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg.)

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