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Muti on conducting new music and conducting in general; reviews from CSO’s concerts in SF

Mason Bates: Composer – DJ

Tonight, the Chicago Symphony arrives in Southern California after too long an absence.  The antici . . . pation is finally coming to an end.  You’ve downloaded your free MP3 of Franck’s Symphony in d minor, listened to it intently, and now you’re ready for the real thing.  A few last minute bits of fun:

Tim Mangan shares a brief video clip where Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s Music Director, is amusingly self-deprecating on his — or any conductor’s — role in making music.  (Click HERE)

Earlier this week, the San Jose Mercury News published an interview Richard Scheinin did with the Maestro in which he describes the same opinion in a slightly different way:

Q Many people don’t really “get” what a conductor does. Can you describe the essence of conducting?

A I come from a school where we don’t learn the art of conducting without learning deeply the music. I started the violin first, and I had a degree in piano, and then I studied composition for ten years. And then when by accident I discovered that I had some qualities to be a conductor. I went to Milan, where I studied with Antonino Votto, who had been an assistant to Toscanini in the ’20s.

He always taught us in the same way Toscanini taught his assistants. And the basic idea is that the arms are an extension of your mind. If you have a musical idea, you must explain it to the orchestra, and then the arms should reflect this idea. It should not be a reason to make a show in front of the public. And my teacher had a great sense of humor. When some of the pupils had a problem starting a symphony, he said, “Don’t worry, just make the sign of a strong downbeat.” He said, “You do this, something will happen in the orchestra.”

The arms are not an instrument. We should use the arms to keep the orchestra together and to underline the expression. But as my friend Carlos Kleiber used to say, “Caro Riccardo, dear Riccardo, it would be so wonderful to conduct without conducting.”

Q Does this ever happen for you, that you feel you’re barely even conducting, physically speaking?

A Yes, in fact my way of conducting today is less demonstrative than when I was young.

Anna Clyne

Even more interesting are comments relating to his conducting of new music — or perceived lack thereof.   By my count, Mr. Muti was pretty much at the bottom of the list of Music Directors conducting contemporary music with their respective orchestras in 2011/2012 (my accounting is HERE).  A quick look at the 2012/2013 season yields more of the same.  Yet in the same interview with Mr. Scheinen, Mr. Muti dismisses any notion that he shies away from such things, and even makes a surprising claim at the end:

Q Your upcoming concerts in San Francisco include two new works by young composers, who are in residence with your orchestra in Chicago: Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. Some people might not recognize that you are such an advocate for contemporary music.

A The people who don’t recognize it are people who are not informed. Because when I was in La Scala and Philadelphia I performed so much contemporary music, and I commissioned so much contemporary music. So I don’t understand this response. If you look at the programs from Philadelphia and La Scala — many, many works of contemporary composers.

But my job is not only to promote the contemporary music, but also to work in the repertoire. With every orchestra, you have to do Bruckner, Schubert, Mahler; the big repertory remains for the conductor and for the public.

And then there are the conductors that are considered specialists in contemporary music. But I can assure you that, if you can conduct Mozart, you can conduct contemporary music — but not necessarily that, if you can conduct contemporary music, you can conduct Mozart. I can assure you that. [Emphasis Mine]

Really?  I’ve heard Kent Nagano and David Robertson both do some compelling Mozart, not to mention Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct some wonderful Haydn.  And I’m having a hard time imagining John Eliot Gardiner or Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Ligeti or Lutoslawski, but you never know . . .

Anyways, some reviews from the CSO’s concerts in San Francisco are in:

  • Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle) was blown away by the orchestra, and really liked what they played — except for Anna Clyne’s “monotonous” work
  • Mr. Scheinen (San Jose Mercury News) contrasts Mr. Muti’s conducting style in the works by Franck and Bates
  • Lisa Hirsch (Iron Tongue of Midnight) was impressed by the orchestra, but was nonplussed by the programming

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3 thoughts on “Muti on conducting new music and conducting in general; reviews from CSO’s concerts in SF

    • I’m a little closer than I want to be for tonight’s CSO concert at Segerstrom — Orchestra section, Row K (or somewhere close). Still, I like acoustics there better than Davies, so my hopes are high. I once sat in the very first row for an LA Phil concert there, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it sounded from there (not that I’d do it again, mind you).

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