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Riccardo Muti brings Chicago Symphony to California

The conductor continues his crusade to offer classical music to atypical patrons in Chicago and spread his orchestra's artistry to the West Coast.

February 12, 2012|By John von Rhein, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Riccard Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 24, 2011.
Riccard Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 24, 2011. (Brent Lewis, Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Chicago —

Later this week, when music director Riccardo Muti brings his Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Orange County for the first time in 25 years, it won't be to show off. The CSO doesn't have to. The fabled 121-year-old ensemble long ago earned itself a lofty niche among the world's elite bands.

Nor does the charismatic, much-honored Neapolitan maestro have anything to prove personally. His vaunted career, which includes the directorships of the La Scala opera in Milan, the Philadelphia Orchestra and London's Philharmonia Orchestra, speaks for itself. The poetic perfectionist, 70, who recently took on the title of honorary conductor for life at the Rome Opera, is at the top of his considerable game as one of the last remaining podium titans of his generation.

But Muti hasn't conducted in Southern California since a visiting stint with the Philadelphians in the 1980s. More to the point, the three Southland appearances by the Muti-Chicago powerhouse will give local listeners an opportunity to hear how the artistic marriage between his Italianate warmth and the orchestra's sinewy brilliance is developing during this, his second season as music director of an orchestra for which, until just a few years ago, he appeared to be an unlikely catch.

The tour begins with concerts Tuesday and Wednesday in San Francisco. From there, Muti and the CSO will head down the coast to Costa Mesa for a concert Friday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall before wrapping up the California tour with concerts in Palm Desert and San Diego. Los Angeles is conspicuously absent from the itinerary. When asked for an explanation, Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, replied via e-mail: "We are great fans of maestro Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and did in fact invite them to appear at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While our organizations enjoy close and excellent relations, as matters sometimes transpire, we were unable to come to a contractual agreement."

Along with conducting symphonies by César Franck and Franz Schubert, Muti will introduce Southern California listeners to new works by the CSO's resident composers, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, the world premieres of which he directed this month back home at Chicago's Orchestra Hall.

Such is Muti's confidence in Bates and Clyne that he insisted their pieces be included in the tour repertory well before any notes had reached staff paper.

"They are big, important works, each completely different from the other," the music director says. "It's essential to take new works on tour because we, as a great orchestra, have an obligation to show the public the latest fruits of young, serious, talented composers who are trying to make new creative paths."

There's no question Muti has brought new vigor, a sleeker and more refined sound, and a renewed sense of artistic purpose to an orchestra that had grown rather adipose during predecessor Daniel Barenboim's controversial 15-season tenure, which ended in 2006. While no one disputed the latter's pianistic gifts, many inside and outside the orchestra found his interpretations uneven and his leadership erratic.

The CSO players, many of them holdovers from the fabled Georg Solti era, were looking for another world-class podium dynamo who could restore them to international glory while boosting their constituency back home. During the search committee's prolonged deliberations, one name kept rising to the fore: Muti's. ("There was no Plan B," said Michael Henoch, CSO assistant principal oboe and a member of the committee.)

But would the patrician maestro accept the job, if it were offered with an orchestra he hadn't faced in more than 30 years? His wounds still fresh from the political and artistic wrangle that had prompted his departure from La Scala in 2005, Muti made it widely known that henceforth he wished to steer clear of any further permanent positions and in fact had turned down two such offers from the New York Philharmonic.

But Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Assn., believed that bringing Muti and the Chicago Symphony together could yield a match for the ages. And so began a steady courtship that lasted well over two years. It blossomed into an open affair in fall 2007 when Muti began the subscription season in Chicago and later led the orchestra on a European tour that turned out to be a mutual love feast. Muti was presented with 60 letters from orchestra members thanking him for the experience. In May 2008, marriage vows were exchanged, and Muti signed a five-year contract as the CSO's 10th music director.

No one seemed more surprised by how quickly it all fell into place than the conductor himself. "Sometimes when you least expect it, the timing and the situation unite," Muti told reporters at the time.

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