Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Wednesday April 25 6PM CDT
Muti and CSO in Italy -- Rome and Naples
BY ANDREW PATNER
NAPLES -- "I am so glad that I was born in this city," Riccardo Muti said in his Orchestra Hall music director's suite the other day before he and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra traveled to Europe this month for a six-city tour of Russia and Italy.
"Naples is such a special place, and it shaped me so much."
CSO music directors have felt great attachments to the musical traditions of their native lands and to their home towns and have taken special pride in bringing the CSO to play in these places, decades after their birth and their school days.
Fritz Reiner was not much for travel and Jean Martinon did not have the necessary pull, but they highlighted Hungarian and French repertoire, respectively, in their concerts and recordings. For their parts, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, former principal conductor Bernard Haitink, and Muti all brought the orchestra to the cities where, they each said over the years, they "would rather have been outside playing soccer than practicing the piano (or violin) all day."
For Muti, bringing the orchestra which he has led officially now for 17 months to Naples has been more important than world tours, Carnegie Hall triumphs, a historic return by the CSO to Moscow and St. Petersburg last week. Even than to the Teatro dell'Opera in the Italian capital, Rome, in the presence of the country's president, Giorgio Napoltano. Muti's fellow Neapolitan, 86, is regarded as the savior of Italy for his appointment of a new and clean government in November after the economic, social, and cultural degradation of the Silvio Berlusconi years.
"Rome is now the capital city, but it was always the city of the popes, not the nation," Muti observed. "Naples was the capital of a kingdom, a coming together of peoples over the centuries, over three millennia, to create a rich and unique civilization, sometimes wild, sometimes crazy, but always alive and compelling."
In Rome on Monday, Muti was received as a celebrity -- he is honorary music director for life there -- complete with paparazzi and impromptu television and radio news conferences at his dressing room door, something reserved in the U.S., for better or worse, for Hollywood stars. When he spoke to the audience at concert's end, there was an air of occasion as he underscored the connection betwen the cause of Italian unity advocated by composer Giuseppe Verdi -- whose overture to his opera "La forza del destino" was the subsequent encore -- and the wider unity among peoples emphasized in the Russian leg of the tour and in the "universal unity of music" that Muti finds.
In Naples Wednesday night -- with the same program of Nino Rota, Muti's teacher at his first conservatory, in the far southern city of Bari; Richard Strauss, and Shostakovich -- there was a much greater sense of homecoming and of the much more casual give and take between audiences and those who address them in the great city of Southern Italy.
"Remember," Muti told me, "in Napoli, people feel they may shout directly to the priest, the politician, the bishop -- even to God Himself! So why not to a conductor?"
And so it was at the Teatro San Carlo, Italy's oldest and most beautiful opera house, and the theatre of Muti's youth. As Muti acknowledged the applause for the orchestra and its program after several curtain calls, there was a lighter sound of the South in his voice and shouts started coming from all directions of the packed house, including the sixth, top, level of balcony boxes and the front row of the main floor.
"Maybe I shouldn't say too much," the conductor laughed. "I can say something I shouldn't."
"Say what you like," one woman shouted in Italian. "You are divine here!"
And when he mentioned that Naples was his home, a woman in the front row shouted at him for all to hear, "But I know that, like me, you are from Puglia!," the southern region on the opposite side of "the boot" from Naples, where Muti's family lived, where his father came from, and where he spent his childhood until his second round in conservatory.
"Yes," he said, to cheers. "I am split in half. But I was born in this great city, and all of me is from the south!"
At a post-concert buffet supper that he presented to the orchestra, Muti, 70, was emotional. "I must say that I was very anxious about this concert. I wanted you to like being here, to like playing in this theatre of Donizetti and Rossini. To appreciate this town and its mix of cultures on your day off tomorrow. And I wanted the people in this theatre and in this city to appreciate your great musical ability and to understand why to be your music director in this, the last period of my life, is one of the greatest gifts of my life."
"After this tremendous performance, I can relax," even though there are still concerts this week in the north, in Brescia, near Milan; and Ravenna, where Muti and his family live. "We have brought together Chicago and Naples at last." Pointing towards tables laden in a theatre foyer with such local specialities as fresh bufala mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, eggplant parmesan and gnocchi, pastries and rum babas, all from the finest local purveyors, with a firm wave of his arms, Muti gave his last instruction for the night, "Tutti a mangiare!"
And they did.