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Riccardo Muti and the death and rebirth (we hope) of culture

Riccardo Muti. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Sitting in the Symphony Center lower balcony on the evening of Sept. 23 was a surprisingly emotional experience for me and, I assume, many others. This was the first concert that Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were to play under this roof since the pandemic began, and we all had to produce our vaccination cards on the way in and to wear masks throughout.

We were—and are—far from back to normal, but we were about to experience sublime live music from one of the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras, and this was an experience to be cherished.

Maestro Muti knew it. As he addressed the crowd beforehand, he chose his words carefully, speaking in his Italian-inflected baritone to an audience as hushed as during the quietest moments of a symphony. He referred to the “20 months of disaster in the world,” the many deaths, the damaged economies, before moving on to the subject dearest his heart: the devastating impact on culture.

“The culture affects our soul, our mind and the interrelationship between people,” Muti, the CSO's music director, said. “We forget how much the lack of culture can damage a society.”

Muti was conducting Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 that night, he said, “because the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and the musicians around the world and the actors and the singers and the composers, the painters—they have been heroic….They couldn't communicate what is the real reason of their life: to give you, the public, enrichment and beauty.”

He continued:

“The world is going in a very tragic way because of lack of culture….Culture is not entertainment. You are not here tonight because you didn’t know how to spend your evening. You are here tonight because you need music, you need to hear life, your fantastic musicians….We are here to give you emotions, to give you the sound of beauty, of harmony—that sound that the world is forgetting. Without music the world will become more and more savage.

“So I am so happy to see all of you in this historical hall in front of an orchestra that is more than 125 years old that has given beauty and music, enrichment to many generations. I’m asking you to stay close to the orchestra, to tell your friends, your colleagues: Come to hear the orchestra—not just to hear the music but to receive through music beauty, harmony and as Beethoven said, brotherhood.”

Maestro Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg.)

The ovation was loud and sustained.

The concert was great too.

Twelve days later I was back inside Symphony Center to watch a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique” and, afterward, to retreat to Muti’s basement chambers to speak with him for my Caropop podcast. While at the Chicago Tribune, I covered Maestro Muti from the beginning of his CSO tenure in 2011 through three European tours, including one that traveled to Russia and his home country of Italy, and I always found him gracious, good-humored and precise. He also gave me the ultimate compliment: He thought I was Italian.

The maestro knows exactly how he wants a performance to sound; during rehearsals he sings parts and makes funny references, such as telling the orchestra he doesn’t want the Tchaikovsky to swoon romantically like Clark Gable. He’s also very clear on what he wants to communicate. He doesn’t hem and haw. He’s direct, no second guessing.

In our conversation we dug deeper into his concerns about culture and discussed why he won't listen to his old recordings, what is his favorite kind of movie (you may be surprised), whether he’s ever been nervous to meet anyone, which audience behavior annoys him the most, why he keeps donkeys at home, whether anyone can enjoy an orchestra performance and what he might do after his recently extended CSO contract ends in 2023.

I hope you find our conversation as inspiring as I did.

Special thanks to Riccardo Muti and his team, as well as the excellent people at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There’s much more to learn, to listen to, and to buy at


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