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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

The View from Here: Muti speaks his mind in NYC — in music and words: Shostakovich, Opera News Award

My Monday April 18 and review of the Sunday April 17, 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra Carnegie Hall concert with Riccardo Muti and report from Sunday evening’s Opera News Awards.

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO and soloists in Verdi's Otello at Chicago's Orchestra Hall last week. CSO/Todd Rosenberg Photography

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO and soloists in Verdi's Otello at Chicago's Orchestra Hall last week. CSO/Todd Rosenberg Photography

Muti speaks his mind in NYC — in music and words

Shostakovich concert, Opera News award fill a Sunday with food for thought


NEW YORK — Riccardo Muti rarely misses a chance to state his view that the music is what matters and that talking about it is a distraction. He even titled his recently-published (so far, only in Italian) memoir, Prima la musica, poi le parole — “First the music, then the words” — after the 18th century opera by Antonio Salieri.

But Muti, new music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is highly adept at communicating from either the podium or the lectern. And the three-day CSO tour he has just led to New York City gave him opportunities to offer both music and talk.

Friday and Saturday nights at Carnegie Hall saw musical triumphs in large-scale works of Verdi and Berlioz, that included the Chicago Symphony Chorus and numerous vocal soloists. (See my Sun-Times review here.) Sunday afternoon’s performance was more low-key, in part because two works announced earlier, Edgard Varèse’s 1920s explosion Arcana and CSO Mead composer-in-residence Anna Clyne’s <<rewind<<, were canceled as Muti’s health problems earlier in the season meant that he and the orchestra had not been able to prepare and present them in Chicago.

As in Chicago 10 days ago, Muti replaced these concert openers with two of his favorites, party pieces in some respects, Cherubini’s 1815 Concert Overture in G and Liszt’s 1860s “symphonic poem,” Les Préludes. New York concertgoers seemed to take these in as Chicagoans had: lesser works performed with great care by the orchestra and care and love from the conductor. Muti plays the Liszt with as little gaucherie as possible. But even he can’t remove those gauche parts and concepts Liszt wrote himself.

As in Chicago, too, Muti’s interpretation of the 1937 Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 stood in great contrast to the concert’s first half. Muti makes a persuasive case that this is indeed a work of depth and beauty and he shows that much — though not all — of the vulgarity associated with the hugely popular work has been piled up on top of it by excessive readings by other conductors.

As a salute to both the exquisite symphonic and solo performances in the Shostakovich, and to recognize the tremendous amount of work that went into these three programs, Muti gave every soloist and principal player a bow and then did the same with the full orchestra section by section. The cheering crowd did not look as if it would mind if he had introduced each player individually.

Sunday night at The Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, Muti received an Opera News Award from the Metropolitan Opera Guild, presented by no less than film auteur Francis Ford Coppola. It turns out that in addition to their mutual connection with the Italian composer Nino Rota — Rota was Muti’s teacher and mentor and wrote the score, theme, and waltz for Coppola’s 1972 The Godfather — Coppola, said that he has recently discovered that, on his mother’s side, the Pennino family, he and Muti, two years his junior, are blood cousins.

Coppola’s family “always new there was a connection of some kind,” the surprisingly shy film director said in his brief remarks. And because both his father, Carmine, and his uncle, Anton Coppola, were prominent musicians in the U.S. and played under Arturo Toscanini in the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the family frequently received requests for help from even distant connections in Italy.

“We were contacted in the’50s about a young boy, 14 or so, in short pants, who played the piano, and would they listen to him,” Coppola said. “My father replied, ‘Any boy in short pants who plays the piano is [now considered] a genius,’ and walked out of the room.” Muti made it “without the Coppolas,” Coppola said.

In his acceptance remarks, Muti — with both humor and seriousness — touched on many things, from aging (he turns 70 in July), to conducting, interpretation, scholarship, his connections over the years with Richard Tucker and Renata Scotto (another of the evening’s presenters). But he kept coming back to the idea of fidelity in music.

“As an Italian conductor, I always have to wonder why no one would consider to cut or change or add notes to Mozart or Wagner and yet, Verdi and other Italian composers are seen as ripe for cutting and changing and reworking, like pizza. This is a part of my life, to show people what music really is and how it is really made.”