By Nancy T. Lu
Cantabile was the word which came to mind when Italian maestro Riccardo Muti made his Taipei debut with the La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra from Milan in 2004. Every piece in the repertoire – from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture to Dances from Verdi’s “Macbeth” to Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5” -- seemed “singable” with the melody smoothly perfect and well brought out always.
As Muti tried to control the beat as well as ensure the correct entries and shaping of individual phrasing, he moved with suavity and grace. His posture and body language belied his age. The orchestra, which was founded by Claudio Abbado in 1982, .responded by making instruments sing with aplomb.
The then 63-year-old Muti more than made up for his lack in physical height with his impressive self-confidence and showmanship. He wore glasses while facing his musicians. But each time he turned around to acknowledge the thundering applause from the audience, his glasses disappeared. He was that particular about his looks. In fact, he took time to comb his hair before stepping out from his dressing room backstage to sign autographs for the queue of fans at the end of the concert.
Muti was adverse to the idea of being put on candid camera. He specified when exactly photographers could take his picture. To those who insisted on stealing shots, he said: “I am not Alain Delon.” He even had members of his entourage -- all of them were of the rather tall and intimidating type -- see to it that his strict instruction about picture-taking was heeded.
Muti himself said that he strikes people who look at him from a distance as “very arrogant.” Such “confusing impression” he attributed to “the presence of a combination of the characteristics of people from Naples and Puglia in southern Italy in me.” He pointed out that the Puglia side comes out when he is with people he doesn’t know, remarking “we are a little diffident and shy.” But his Neapolitan aspect is “full of humor.” It likewise shows “a great sense of irony about myself and my world.”
Of his pride, he spoke of it as more of a manifestation of dignity, belonging to each human being whether he is a doctor or a fisherman. His mother, a strong Neapolitan woman who raised five boys, passed on to him “this attitude about being straight.” He remembered her telling him to be a man, and “this has nothing to do with chauvinism.”
If Muti was proud of anything, it was the Italian music tradition he was born to. He cited the history of opera as having started in Florence in his own homeland. He likewise called attention to the universal use of Italian music terminology like fortissimo, andante and so forth. The names associated with the finest violins like Stradivari and Guarneri are Italian also, he added.
Muti was born in Naples, Italy, on July 28, 1941. At the age of seven, this son of a doctor found a gift of violin in his hands, forcing him to study music. Many Italian families in those days thought music education essential to their children’s upbringing. Muti later turned to piano, earning his diploma from the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella. He worked for a second diploma in composition and orchestral conducting at the Milan Conservatory.
Muti tried conducting by chance. The director of the conservatory called him to his office one day to ask him if he was interested to wield the baton.
“I heard you playing at the concert and from the way you played the piano, you showed that you have the mind of a conductor,” Muti was told.
The conservatory at that time was in need of a student to conduct and Muti was asked to give it a try. He was notified that a teacher would tell him in two days what he must do with a Bach composition.
Muti went on to face the orchestra. Overcoming his initial trepidation, he carried on with his beats. After half an hour, the teacher announced to the director of the conservatory: “A new conductor is born.”
In his career, Muti welcomed occasions to bring musicians home to Naples to perform. Everybody except for six in the audience would applaud enthusiastically at the end of the concert. His mother would not allow his father and his brothers to clap. His extrovert father would end up feeling repressed. His mother thought it too easy to applaud for a son.
Muti’s conducting talent caught early on the attention of Herbert von Karajan. He invited Muti to conduct Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1971. The following year, he asked Muti to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1972 Muti started a series of concerts as guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He later became the principal conductor, succeeding Otto Klemperer. He was appointed music director in 1979 and conductor laureate in 1982. In 1986, he was named the music director of the Teatro alla Scala and since 1987 held the post of principal conductor of the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala. He has over the years been involved in acclaimed opera productions on different continents, too. Muti had a falling out with the La Scala orchestra and the staff, resigning on April 2, 2005
. Muti landed in the news after he fainted at the podium during a rehearsal in 2011. He was later fitted with a pacemaker. In January 2013, he cancelled several concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, citing a bout of influenza.
As conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Muti earned US$2.2 million as salary, performance fees, recording and broadcast fees in 2011.
“Conducting is a difficult profession,” said Muti. “The public sees power in the conductor. But the podium is an island of solitude. The musicians’ respect and love do give meaning to the profession.”
As he put it, “I like doing nothing when I am not conducting.” Life for him is a never-ending series of rehearsals and concerts, of studying scores and touring with the orchestra.
The maestro, whose idol is the late Arturo Toscanini, elaborated on his need for rest: “Music takes up so much of my time. Even when I am not making music, there is still the problem of interpretation. The brain is still connected with music.”
Like a number of conductors, Muti likes biking, walking, swimming and reading.
For a successful musician who has come this far in his career, Muti expressed his interest in helping young people in the direction of music appreciation.
“Music should be given to young people as joyful enrichment and not like a bitter medicine,” he who turns 72 this year said. “Once guided, they will not go in another direction.”
Muti observed that people generally tend to find classical music more elitist and opera more popular. He emphasized: “Music is music. It should be expressed with feeling. It should be musically correct. Music should be refined and not vulgar.”
He opined that music should not be made just to please the public. He cited Verdi’s “Aida” as an example of “a very intimate opera.” But what has happened to the opera with two or three singers expressing very deep feelings during scenes full of terrible conflict? The stage direction puts too much focus on just two very crowded scenes. Each production gets more spectacular. Twenty elephants are introduced in one show. The elephants increase to 40 in the next production. The opera with very elegant and sophisticated orchestration turns into one of extreme vulgarity, according to Muti. .