RICCARDO Muti, the 75-year-old Italian maestro known for both his talent and toughness on the podium, believes that being a good conductor means moving the souls of musicians.
“In music, you cannot order, you have to inspire,” says Muti.
Muti was in town last week for two performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The shows were part of an ongoing world-tour marking the 125th anniversary of the famed orchestra, which Muti currently leads as its 10th music director.
During his recent trip, Muti recalled his first visit to Shanghai in 2009. At that time, he was impressed by the discipline and feeling for classic music that he witnessed among young musicians in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, with whom he worked at the time.
“The musicians understood my ideas immediately, which I didn’t expect from a Chinese orchestra,” says Muti. “Maybe Italians and Chinese are similar in some ways. Or many all musicians are very similar, considering that music is a universal language.”
Born into a musical family in Naples, Muti was surrounded by performers from a young age.
He studied piano under Vincenzo Vitale at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples, and subsequently received a diploma in composition and conducting from the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan.
His principal teachers included Bruno Bettinelli and Antonino Votto, principal assistant to Arturo Toscanini at La Scala.
After winning the Guido Cantelli Conducting Competition — by unanimous vote from the jury — in Milan in 1967, Muti’s talent for conducting was widely recognized.
By the time of his appointment with the CSO in 2010, Muti had over four decades of experience leading ensembles such as Florence’s Maggio Musicale, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Teatro alla Scala.
Muti is often described in terms of his strong personality and persuasive manner.
But as he sees it though, he never intentionally seeks to change the orchestras he leads. In his view, each orchestra has its own culture, one that reflects its country of origin as well as the diverse backgrounds of its individual members.
“Any orchestra is made of musicians. If you have good musicians, you have a good orchestra. They are the core,” says Muti, “But naturally, if a conductor has a personality and knows exactly what he wants, his ideas go to the musicians and guide them.”
For instance, Muti mentioned his experience with the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble he conducted periodically for over 45 years.
According to the maestro, they immediately refocus on his conducting style and preferred sound whenever he returns to lead them.
“It just happens naturally,” he says.
“Some people say that if we (conduct) the same — respecting the lines and how the lines should go — there will be no difference between one conductor and another. The different personality of conductors will make the orchestra sound differently even if they follow the same rules,” explains Muti.
A good conductor, Muti believes, is expected to have wide knowledge of composition, an ability to transfer his or her ideas to the orchestra, a clear idea about the possibilities of various instruments and a profound understanding of general culture, including literature and fine art.
“As Toscanini said, even a donkey can keep time,” says Muti, “but conducting is much more than that.”
Muti is concerned that many young conductors today overexaggerate their gestures but fail to enrich their understanding of their pieces.
“The hands and arms are an extension of a conductor’s mind. But today, the arms are becoming a show,” says Muti, “We are living in such a visual society... where life is largely based on what we see rather than what we hear. When seeing a conductor move a lot, some audience members might think that he’s good. But this is not true. The great conductors like Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter and Herbert Karajan didn’t make a show on stage. It’s not good to witness the art of conducting turn into Kung Fu.”
Desert island picks
The secret of maintaining control over an orchestra, Muti holds, lies in the work done between the conductor and musicians during rehearsal.
“When everything is prepared, everything comes out naturally in the performance,” says Muti. “A good conductor can control his orchestra even with eye contact on stage if given sufficient rehearsal time.”
Over the course of his extensive career, Muti has conducted everything from opera to contemporary music. Yet when it comes to leading an orchestra, Muti says he has no preferences in terms of period or genre.
While he tries to devote the same level of care and attention to every piece he conducts, Muti nevertheless admitted that certain composures and works occupy a special spot in his heart.
When asked which recordings he would like on a deserted island, Muti had a ready answer — Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” and Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
“Both of these two operas speaks to what we are as humans,” says Muti.
“Cosi fan tutte” features a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte which focuses on human nature and defects. Mozart’s opera, in Muti’s opinion, helps present these human aspects in such a way that audiences will recognize them in themselves.
“The greatness of Mozart, unlike Beethoven, is that he does not judge as a moralist. You feel a sense of comfort when listening to Mozart as you recognize yourself as Susanna or Figaro on stage. We all make mistakes, and we ask for forgiveness. But in Mozart, there is a question mark. Do we really need forgiveness?” says Muti.
“Falstaff,” based on a character created by Shakespeare, is a similar case in his view. As Verdi puts it in this work, “everything in the world is a joke.”
After making a career for himself in the world of classical music, Muti is also focused on passing down his knowledge to the younger generation.
He founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in 2004 and the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy in 2015 to pass on the Italian opera tradition to young conductors and répétiteur. Meanwhile, with the Le vie dell’Amicizia (The paths of friendship), a project of the Ravenna Festival in Italy, he has conducted in many of the world’s most troubled areas as a way to draw attention to civic and social issues.
“Verdi was once asked, what is your secret to success. Verdi answered with three words: work, work and work. My secret to becoming a good conductor is: study, study and study,” says Muti.
Muti reflected that he conducted Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” for the first time when he was 45 years-old, as the music director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. He is surprised today though to see conductors in their mid-20s conducting works like “Don Giovanni.”
“Today, everybody wants success too soon,” says Muti.
“They can conduct, but to interpret is another thing. I would advise most young conductors to wait and not to go too fast. As Vittorio Gui, the founder of the Florence May Festival, told me when he was 90, ‘what a pity it is to be near the end of my life just when I started to understand what means to conduct’.”