Saturday, February 27, 2010

muti's "vision": one for the twentieth century?

"In America they use the word ‘vision' a lot. What is vision? I do not see myself as St. Francis, offering Chicago my beatific visions. Rather, in my first season, I see myself giving, together with this great orchestra, a panoramic view of the history of music. As we go along, we will try to find new ways to bring more people together, through music." - Riccardo Muti, at the CSO Press Conference

Riccardo Muti is a Maestro, with a big ol' capital M. I'm not saying that because he's Italian, or because he's a great conductor. This idea is ingrained in his personality, and it is perfect for a guest conductor. He could come into Chicago four or five times a season, like Haitink and Boulez do now, lead a series of terrific performances, rile up all the members of the orchestra, and leave everyone in the city salivating for more. We would get our great masterworks, whether full concert operas, Bruckner symphonies, or weird Liszt/Verdi/Boccherini program concoctions.

But Maestro Muti is not stepping into the position of a principal conductor, conductor emeritus, or conductor-in-residence. He is becoming a music director. And in this century, the title music director comes with more responsibilities that simply leading a series of excellent performances. Every single season of every single orchestra in America gives a "panoramic view of the history of music." That's like saying, "What is vision? My vision is to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their hall this year."

As I have already written about, central to the role of music director is bringing living composers and new works to the ears of the audiences. Other things are important as well; the two that come to mind most immediately are community outreach (more on this later) and inventive, intelligent programming. I'm afraid that Muti continues to lack strong ability for the latter, and has yet to demonstrate concrete plans for the former. But for the moment, let's return to the idea of "vision."

We need vision in the minds and hearts of our music directors of our big orchestras. Vision is what distinguishes an orchestra from giving a series of great performances, the standard practice of most American orchestras from 1920 through, say, 1970 (and lingering on until 2000), and becoming a vibrant and essential part of its cities. The difference between the 20th century idea of vision (which is what Muti subscribes to) and the 21st century view, is one of expectations. In the 1950s, a conductor could lead a great performances with his (and yes, it was always his) orchestra and expect audiences, naturally, to flock to them. Although Muti claims he is not St. Francis (and in doing so, mocks the entire idea of artistic vision), he subscribes to this notion of the concert hall as temple, where if you play it they will come. But the concert hall in this century can no longer be a temple--and I hesitate to even use that analogy, since religion has changed drastically with the times while the rituals of classical music often have not. The concert hall should be an experiment, a museum curated by creative and diverse and interesting people. And beyond that, we need to market the shit out of it to simply get people in the seats.

Muti made the mistake in the press conference of assuming that the season brochure would speak for itself. If it does, it does not express any sort of vision. Browsing the brochures of the L.A. and New York Philharmonics, it is easy to grasp each orchestra's vision: smart programming blending together classics and new music, festivals which feature masterworks paired with commissions. The CSO season doesn't look significantly different from the last; the programs that stand out the most are actually Boulez's. Muti spoke extensively about his pairing of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Lelio as part of his vision--Lelio being a kind of "sequel" to the Symphonie. Muti pointed out numerous times that he is the only person who does this, perhaps a subtle dig at Gilbert's opening night this season of the Symphonie with Messiaen and Lindberg (a program I find much more appealing). The CSO brochure advertises "special lighting, supertitles and theatrical effects as conceived by the composer." This is great! This is all well and fine, if it was representative of the rest of Muti's season. But it's not.

We get a concert of all Mozart and Haydn symphonies---Muti wants to "explore" the relationship between the Sturm und Drang Haydn 39 and Mozart 25, but I question putting together two similar, contemporary works on the same program. Then we get a Rands premiere, Hindemith's Concert Music, and Cherubini's Requiem. I talked about Muti's penchant for bizarre programming here, and this strikes me as another one of those grab bags--three pieces I want to hear, but don't particularly resonate with each other in any kind of special (or, dare I say, "visionary") way. The other program of the Season Kickoff, with Wagner, Chavez, and Beethoven, is another grab bag--it commemorates"Mexico 2010" by sandwiching a Mexican composer between the two German giants. That doesn't particularly strike me as a celebration of Mexican culture.

Some more of Muti's programs: Schumann and Shostakovich (for the umpteenth time since I've been in Chicago, the 5th Symphony); Anna Clyne's rewind with Tchaikovsky and Brahms (another nonsensical juxtaposition); Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss, Varese's Arcana, and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (can you say grab bag?); Verdi's Otello (more on this in a bit); Mussorgsky, Strauss, and Prokofiev (this just feels like a "great masterworks" album); and Mason Bates' The B-Sides with Schumann and Strauss (again, really just slapping a new piece onto your average subscription program). When speaking about his choice of Mason Bates, who works with electronics, as composer-in-residence, Muti said "[sic] The young generation is naturally open to everything that is electronic, this is a new way to bring young people to this new path." Just putting a piece that features electronics in the beginning of your program, without coupling it with other works that might somehow attract young, hip people--or advertising it in a specifically "young" way--isn't going to really draw anyone's attention.

There's really nothing visionary here, in the sense of vision implying one looking forward rather than backward. Yes, I am grateful that he is conducting Chicago premieres of new works and Haydn symphonies; but why not program them so that they resonate with other music of the past or present? If Muti isn't particularly capable of this, why not share the love, like we have in L.A. and New York? Bring Bates and Clyne in to supervise the programming of their big orchestra works (it is possible that Clyne asked to be paired with Tchiak and Brahms, but highly unlikely). Let's get a composer-in-residence, an artist-in-residence (Mutter in New York), a famous-person-in-residence (Alec Baldwin in New York) and let the creative juices flow.

This is just the beginning of a number of posts continuing my ideas on Muti and the other new seasons. Stay tuned.


  1. Great points!

    We have lost our value in orchestral music since orchestras have abandoned the vision of innovation and have ignored almost every advance in technology. It is only a matter of time that the "value" of prestige the big orchestras have goes away, and they sink with the rest.

    John Banther,

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