The Chicago Symphony: Blazing a trail backward since 1953

Riccardo Muti

New CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti, seen here in costume for his role as Vincent Price's Italian half-brother

The Riccardo Muti era got underway in Chicago with a free outdoor concert featuring some good war-horse material, including The Pines of Rome, a Muti staple.  The Sun-Times review is pretty glowing.  By any accounts I’ve read, the town is excited, the orchestra is excited, and Muti is excited about the prospects for the partnership.  There is no reason not to be.  Muti is widely respected and has had an extensive and successful career.

But it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by Chicago’s choice.  Going back to the days of Fritz Reiner, the CSO has remained committed to working with some of the finest maestros in the world…provided they’ve been vetted for 25 years by European audiences.  This is not to suggest that the board of the CSO is anti-American or biased or anything else.  But it is to suggest that they are frightened and weak-willed when it comes to their selections.

Ironically, those of you who may actually read this know that I don’t generally care for the new trend in conducting of giving prominent music directorships to 20-somethings with little proven music-making ability.  The results I’ve had the opportunity to hear have been less than stellar, in my opinion, and there are countless conductors who have significantly broader resumes who go unnoticed.

But Chicago has taken the opposite track, scouring the concert halls and opera houses of Europe for dudes whose reputations were made 30 or more years ago and looked like a million bucks on the cover of an LP.  Bernard Haitink is quite possibly the greatest living conductor in the entire world.  Pierre Boulez might also be in that discussion.  Ditto Riccardo Muti.  But the one thing they share in common is that they’re pretty fucking old.

Why not look at someone like David Robertson, who seems to have built himself a good reputation in St. Louis?  Why not look at Robert Spano, who has had a successful turn in Atlanta?  Why not tab Donald Runnicles, who becomes, the more I listen to his performances, a total bad ass?  Why not grab Gianandrea Noseda if you must have an Italian guy with tons of skills?

Family connections or not, the New York Philharmonic’s decision to make Alan Gilbert their MD a couple years ago was at least a bold stroke.  A New Yorker with a solid track record, young enough to be fresh, old enough to be whatever a dry-aged steak or a bottle of Chianti is.  Will it be a historic connection?  We’ll see, but at least it was something different and exciting.

It’s sad to think of Chicago’s Muti decision as going against the grain in the current conducting environment, but just because its against the grain, doesn’t mean it’s any better.  I respect Muti’s musicianship, and I have little doubt that there will be some sparkling performances from his tenure in Chicago.  But what’s next for the CSO?

Is the corpse of Lorin Maazel available?


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