Welcome to Part 2 of my series on the future of the CSO. Part 1 is here; I'm not sure if there's going to be a part 3. There are a couple other things I want to touch upon, but I may wait until the season announcement for those.
I'm going to say something controversial: Riccardo Muti is a bad programmer.
Look at what he's doing this season with the NY Phil. Each program seems like a good idea--a masterwork by a big composer (Brahms, Mozart, Schubert) and a lesser-performed composer (Hindemith, Franck, Boccherini). But what, exactly, does the Brahms First Piano Concerto have to do with a Hindemith Symphony? The Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Franck Symphony? We already had the bizarre coupling of Honegger's Second Symphony with the Eroica.
It gets worse when you look at older Muti programs in New York. So far in Chicago he has stuck to doing large one-off pieces--the Brahms and Verdi Requiems, Bruckner symphonies, etc. In New York, though, he cobbles together these odd programs of big and little pieces which really don't say anything about each other. Here we have two big pieces, the Ravel Piano Concerto and Schubert's Ninth. And a bizarre mix of Elgar, Liszt, and Prokofiev. Sometimes the programs make sense, like Haydn and the first Brahms Serenade. But then there are the truly bizarre mixes: Scriabin symphony and Beethoven concerto, or Scriabin, Brahms, and Liszt.
The most egregious, I think, was a concerto I attended in 2007: a Cherubini overture, Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto with Lang Lang, and Hindemith's Expressionist opera Sancta Susanna. I imagine the pairing of Lang Lang and Muti was an administrator's decision and not Muti's; as the Times noticed, they are not exactly compatible musical personalities. But is a light overture and one of the most warhorsey of the warhorses, the best way to prep patrons for an opera where a nun strips in front of a crucifix? Judging by how quickly the audience streamed out when the final chord sounded, no.
It is difficult to tell whether some of strange programs are actually Muti's fault. As a guest conductor, he probably had to relinquish some control regarding what concerto is on what program. I can't judge his programming from when he was with Philly since I was two years old when he quit. But old Times reviews show the same thing---Salieri, Bach, Prokofiev?
What I worry, actually, is not that we end up with these mix-and-match programs. I worry that Muti will only be conducting big pieces like he has done recently in Chicago, with one piece on a program. Anyone can come to Chicago and conduct a great Brahms Requiem or Bruckner/Mahler symphony (I'm curious to see what his Mahler is like)--it's in the orchestra's blood. I want to see Muti taking risks, mixing music by living composers with the classics in an intelligent way. He is supposedly championing Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, but that seems more out of the fact that the CSO needs composers-in-residence than a specific interest in contemporary music. As far as I know, he has never worked with living composers before. It's great to see rare music by Salieri or Hindemith in a subscription concert, but only if it mixes organically with the rest of the program.
Again, I am raising these issues before the season announcement because I have been thinking about them for a while. I am not concerned about the CSO's music-making under Muti, which will continue (and maybe even improve!) its excellent standard. But I worry about artistic vision, something that may not have been present in most orchestras ten years ago, but is vitally important now. Ideally, the symphony orchestra season should function as a unified artistic statement in the manner of a great museum exhibition. Not only would the works within each program reflect on each other, but the programs themselves would shed new light on the orchestra's creativity and the smarts of the music director and administration. That, I think, is what makes the difference between a conductor (what we have now in Chicago) and a music director (what I hope we have next year in Chicago).
P.S. Thanks to Mr. Geelhoed for the shoutout! Here's hoping we get more great posts like this one.