Chiavi in mano

After a multi-year courtship, Riccardo Muti finally made an honest woman out of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,agreeing to become their music director as of 2010. The announcement wasn’t, in the end, much of a surprise (though the conspiratorial-minded might notice that the contract was signed only after Simon Rattle re-upped in Berlin), but now that it’s official, pondering may commence as to what it all means for the future of the CSO, &c., &c. But really, the hire is a re-assertion of long-standing CSO tradition. And if the experience of this native is any indication, that might just be more forward-looking than it seems.

Muti is the latest in a line of CSO music directors who came in with a considerable European track record. (He is, in fact, the oldest hire in the position’s history.) You could consider this sort of off-the-shelf approach a holdover from Gilded Age days, when big American cities took a look at their increasing commercial prowess and decided to import some culture to match. The standard line on this has always been fashioned around American insecurity towards native art, relying on more venerable and proven European traditions to class up the joint. But growing up just outside of Chicago, hearing Solti conduct, hanging out at the Art Institute, I always thought that the driving force was a sense of entitlement, not insecurity; we took the standard boilerplate—”a world-class city deserves world-class art”—at face value.

There’s a downside to that, of course—the CSO never cultivated much of a relationship with local composers, the vibrant experimental and improvisation scene in Chicago mostly making their own way—but then again, that was never really the point of having the institution. The orchestra was always a civic crown jewel, an assertion that the city and its people were worthy of the best that classical music had to offer. (When Daniel Barenboim took over from Solti in the early 90s, the biggest question wasn’t whether he would or wouldn’t make the orchestra more local or more American, but simply whether he was really good enough.) Muti, an A-list hire if there ever was one, is fully in keeping with that pattern.

I grew up with the sense that the CSO brought classical music to Chicago not because Chicago needed it, but because Chicago deserved it. For me, that deserving was an important part of my musical development—my relationship to the classical-music canon was that I had as much right to it as anybody, that it wasn’t a perk of class or status, but common civic property, the spoils of industry and curiosity. In the best possible way, I took the world-class orchestra in town for granted.

Civic pride is an odd thing. I’ve always been proud of Chicago’s labor history, the fact that the city produced the types of workers fearless enough to stand up to rich bastards like Marshall Field and his ilk. But then again, I’m also proud to claim a connection with a city that produced such rich bastards to begin with. So I fully admit that I’m biased, that I’m liable to look with favor on a status quo at the CSO, just because it played such a strong part in making my musical outlook what it is. But regardless of how Muti addresses a lot of the usual concerns—more new music, more community involvement, more outreach to new audiences—there’s a part of me that’s happy that the CSO is continuing the pattern of old-school, high-reputation excellence, happy that another generation of Chicagoans will be able to brashly claim that music, and that music-making, as a right and not just a privilege.


  1. Well, it looks like that, to many people, perception counts more than intrinsic value…Muti is for sure in the list of renowned conductors (12 years with the PO, almost 20 years at LaScala, services in Florence and visits to the most prominent Houses witness this) but his real consistency is questionable.In the press and blogs, in Italy and outside, two feelings go, poles apart: the ones who fears that Muti will destroy the CSO (A.C.Douglas!) and others that think that the CSO will kill Muti. From my perspective (and after 20 years of LaScala experience) our Maestro can do good in (mostly italian) Operas, while his symphonic attitude is far from even approaching “stars” like Gergev, Barenboim, Rattle, Abbado… just to name a few.But who knows… this marriage could help both parties to improve: that’s my best wish!

  2. Well, certainly there’s no denying that perception <>does<> count for a lot in terms of maintaining the public profile of a band like the CSO, and also in relationship to morale. On both of those counts, and based on the reported good vibes between conductor and orchestra (not a small achievement in Chicago), it seems like the CSO hit their mark. (Michael Hovnanian, on his blog, said the real test is to see how soon the old-timers start referring to Barenboim’s tenure as “the good old days.”)It strikes me that Muti is the type of conductor that, in the past, the CSO has done happy work with—similar to Giulini and Abbado, the combination of precision and a certain emotional reticence, an energetic fidelity to the score, thrilling but not over-the-top, etc. So I don’t think he’ll destroy the CSO—I think he’ll play right into their comfort zone. Whether he can pull it off while minding the whole store, I’ll be interested to see.

  3. I should say that I haven’t heard Muti much over the past decade, but when I have, I’ve been impressed. I can’t vouch for his consistency, but when he’s on, it’s some smart, smart music-making.

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