In spite of the fascinating things I’ve been blogging about lately – boring tour travel, uneaten breakfasts, bass boxes, and the like – the astute reader might have noticed the omission of a subject of some importance to the CSO. I am of course referring to the fact that Riccardo Muti conducted us for four weeks this fall. I can assure my readers that I actually looked up once or twice over the past month and took note of who was conducting and how, but I purposefully withheld comment until the feverish excitement had died down.
Muti is undoubtedly one of the names under serious consideration for the music director position here. More than any other conductor on the ‘short list’, a great deal of hype and speculation preceded his arrival. It didn’t hurt that Muti’s appearance coincided with the conclusion of contract negotiations that had our European tour and the preceding week of concerts hanging in the balance. Either fate or very clever design produced a charged atmosphere where his taking the podium became something of an almost operatic denouement.
The perils and pitfalls of going on record about someone who may well end up as my boss are obvious even to me, so I’m not about to provide a blow-by-blow analysis of Muti’s conducting. More interesting to me was the reaction of the orchestra.
With the hype over Muti’s arrival ramping up I observed some different reactions. A number of players were highly skeptical about him for one reason or another. The more the excitement over his arrival grew, the more skeptical they became. Others bought into the myth-in-the-making wholesale.
The one common assumption seemed to be that Muti might be a difficult, perhaps egotistical person. Whether this was cause for skepticism or premature adulation probably depended on each individual musician’s tendency towards Masochism or Sadism.
Anyhow, members of both camps waited eagerly to be proved right when he actually began working with us. I was secretly pleased when Muti turned out to be personable, self effacing (for a conductor anyway) and funny, proving many wrong.
The quick acceptance and even affection for Muti came as a shock to me – something I haven’t seen here before. It was more than slightly strange hearing some of the most wizened, perennial conductor hating players tittering on like schoolgirls. “Do you think he likes us? I really hope he likes us!” The one lesson I learned was that this orchestra has no practice playing hard to get.
But Muti played his part masterfully, cultivating the good will he encountered. He acted like a man given the keys to a pretty nice car, who had the savvy not to look too closely under the hood or swipe his finger across the dashboard while the owner was still watching. Instead, he took us for a pleasant drive around the Italian countryside. I kept waiting for him to throw a wet rag over the whole affair – stop the orchestra to tell us our tremolo sucked, for instance – but thank heavens he had better sense than that.