Microphone in hand, working the room with his usual seasoned authority and quip-filled charm, Riccardo Muti insisted he is "not a sentimental man." He then proceeded to wax sentimental about his ongoing relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
"During our time together I have changed them a little but they also have changed me," the CSO music director said, smiling, at a news conference Monday morning to announce the orchestra's 2014-15 season. "I have become more relaxed, more accessible. Every day I am happy to go to work with them. We enjoy making music together. This orchestra has made me feel Chicago is my second home."
There was another reason the 72-year-old maestro was sporting a grin. Just minutes before the media event, Muti had signed a new contract extending his tenure as the CSO's artistic chief, through August 2020.
While it was the obvious news peg, Muti's welcome announcement also was revealing for the clear signals it sent out as to what the orchestra will sound like, and how it will function, under his command through the end of the decade.
His love of the Chicago musicians was, he said, the primary factor influencing his decision to continue an association with the orchestra that began at Ravinia in 1973, resumed in earnest downtown in 2007 and led to his becoming the CSO's 10th music director in 2010.
The CSO players, administration, board and public clearly are just as bullish about Muti as he with them. And the record ticket sales and fundraising reported over the last three fiscal years, along with the superior quality of musicmaking in evidence from week to week, affirm the durability of the musical marriage.
The timing of Muti's reupping was fortuitous since it will spare the institution the necessity of having to fill two top artistic and administrative posts at the same time, now that CSO Association President Deborah F. Rutter is leaving in June to assume the same title at the Kennedy Center in Washington in the fall.
Muti's comments as to what qualities he is looking for in the new president were revealing. Clearly the new CEO will have to be someone he can work with, someone broadly cultured and "international" in outlook who "knows music and musicians," he said, and will, by implication, defer to the maestro's artistic decisions.
Although the administrative dynamic at U.S. orchestras has been changing in recent decades, with executive directors and other staff members having greater say in artistic decisions, Muti comes out of a European tradition that insists the music director hold sway in all such decisions. The CSO board clearly will wish to avoid inadvertently creating "friction" (Muti's word) over lines of demarcation such as resulted in Daniel Barenboim's stepping down as music director in 2006.
(It's unlikely that the souring of internal relations that led to Muti's stormy departure as artistic chief of La Scala in 2005 would ever occur here. As political as Chicago can be, it's worlds removed from Milan.)
Next season's programs are not very adventuresome compared with what other major orchestras, such as the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics, or the St Louis Symphony, are doing. Nor will any new guest conductors grace the roster. Some of Muti's choices in "new music" have been, at best, questionable. Given the wide scope of his repertory, the prospect of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner symphonic cycles, as he said he will present, does not exactly quicken the pulse.
There will be much on Muti's plate not strictly related to putting on concerts, starting with the necessity of improving the problematic acoustics of Orchestra Hall. In June Muti revealed exclusively to the Tribune that an exploratory study involving the eminent acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota is ongoing. Not a word about that study came out of Monday's media gathering.
What's more, there are several important vacancies to be filled in the CSO ranks, including principal horn and principal clarinet. The latter post is being filled by guest clarinetists while the highly regarded Stephen Williamson is officially "on leave" to the New York Philharmonic. (He is not expected to return.) Other chairs will be falling vacant and how discerningly they are filled will impact decisively on what sort of orchestra Muti bequeaths his successor.
"I'm not a visionary," the maestro said when asked how the CSO rank and file will change over the remaining years of his tenure. But he said it is essential that whoever is brought into the orchestra be an absolutely top-flight musician "who understands the personality" and "can continue the enrichment" of the orchestra. It would help, too, he added, if they are "nice people."
While the Chicago Symphony will be celebrating Pierre Boulez's 90th birthday with all due importance next season, it would be nice if management were more forthcoming about the health status of the CSO's eminent conductor emeritus, whom Muti on Monday called "the most important musician we have today in the world."
The French composer-conductor canceled his scheduled CSO appearances the past two seasons because of illness and also will not participate directly in concerts he had planned and was originally announced to conduct here later this month. Clearly the administration is keeping a discreet lid on this delicate matter out of respect for Boulez's wishes.
"I hope Boulez will be able to return, and even if he is unable to conduct, that he can assist and guide (the orchestra)," Muti said. "I hope he will improve physically, for his benefit as well as ours." Rutter added that Boulez has "an open invitation" to resume his work at the CSO.
As for guest conductors invited to take over the subscription weeks beyond the 10 weeks Muti is to conduct next season, he said he believes in maintaining a "rotation of conductors who are important to the orchestra." Conceding the lack of new faces in 2014-15, he said "there several important conductors we haven't been able to invite," citing the admired German chief of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Christian Thielemann, as one example.
Muti also reaffirmed his continuing efforts to reach out to youth and to more of the city's culturally underserved communities, presumably through more appearances at youth detention facilities and other outreach and education initiatives in partnership with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO's creative consultant, and the association's Institute for Learning, Access and Training.
"Great orchestras like Chicago are part of the city's heritage to the world," the CSO supremo said. "What it can give to the city, and the rest of the world, is the highest message of culture."
Schwantner residency at NU
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Northwestern University alumnus Joseph Schwantner will return to his alma mater later this week for a residency comprising four public events, including a world premiere. He will coach several hundred students for the performances and speak at each concert.
The first three concerts will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and will include Schwantner works as performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, Symphonic Band and Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and University Chamber Orchestra.
The residency will culminate in the world premiere of Schwantner's "Chapel Music: Five Diverse Songs for Chorus and Orchestra," to be given as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of Alice Millar Chapel, 7 p.m. Sunday at the chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston. Also on the program will be the composer's "New Morning for the World," based on texts by Martin Luther King Jr. Performers include the Chapel Choir under Stephen Alltop, the University Singers directed by Emily Ellsworth and the University Symphony Orchestra. A freewill offering will be taken at the door.
For more information, call 847-491-5441 or visit pickstaiger.org. For tickets, call 847-467-4000 or go to the website.
Twitter @jvonrheinCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun