The door opens on an elegantly furnished anteroom at Piacenza’s Teatro Municipale. “Maestro”, as Riccardo Muti is known wherever he goes, sits with cigarette in hand, holding court during a rehearsal break. His audience includes friends from Florence, the birthplace of his career; a former cellist at La Scala, Milan, where he reigned supreme for 19 years; and the director of culture for Piacenza, which he has been helping to put on the musical map. He cracks jokes, tells stories about his idols – Verdi, Toscanini, Sviatoslav Richter – and extols the 18th-century school of composers from his native Naples, whose music he will be championing at this year’s Salzburg Whitsun festival.

At 65 Muti looks more relaxed than he has for a long time. The strains that led to his resignation as La Scala’s music director two years ago have left no visible trace. Far from smouldering over the vote of no confidence passed by the workforce, Muti is enjoying a new lease of life. He makes a long-awaited return next week to the Philharmonia, the orchestra that established him internationally in the 1970s. In 2009 he will make a belated debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. A new relationship with the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome is promised, and he enjoys regular stints with the Cherubini Orchestra, an ensemble of young Italians he founded in Piacenza.

This sleeping beauty of a city, easily bypassed on the way from Milan to Parma, seems an unlikely bolthole for one of the world’s leading conductors. But Piacenza lies in the same region as Ravenna, Muti’s home. Two years ago the cities clubbed together to finance an orchestra that could give college graduates a foothold on the ladder of professional experience.

It’s only when you see Muti at work that you realise how energised he is by this opportunity to pass on hard-won experience. A Muti rehearsal is like no other, not just because of his old-school air of command – “Maestro” inspires deference even in the most hard-bitten orchestras – but also because of his peerless solfeggio, a patter-like way of demonstrating the musical line (“fa-sol-sol-la . . . ”). Towards the end of Puccini’s Preludio Sinfonico he tells the woodwinds to play in a hushed tone appropriate to church (“come in chiesa”). In the first movement of Dvorák’s Fifth Symphony he calls for a darker sonority (“il sono scuro”), later explaining that Italian string players are congenitally disposed to play in a lighter style appropriate to Vivaldi, Geminiani and Tartini rather than with the Brahms-like sound admired by Dvorák.

Even more than interpretative details, Muti wants to instil an attitude of mind. Relaxing post-rehearsal with another cigarette, he admits that, while happy to be working with people who represent Italy’s musical future, he finds himself drawing increasingly on the past – spurred by his impression that “suddenly the whole idea of European culture is being left behind, because the world and technology are moving so fast in other directions. I don’t want to sound old-minded, but one thing I learnt from the great soloists early in my career – Richter, Claudio Arrau, Robert Casadesus – is the ethical approach. When I worked with Richter, even before the first rehearsal he would spend hours in a room discussing every modulation. He would tell me: ‘We must try to
find the unexpected’ – he always used the Italian word sorpresa. And the surprise is not something you invent in the moment. It is the result of long thought.”

Muti cites Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, asking “how long did the great English actors take to reach the essence of this most simple phrase? Everything today is done too fast. You need time, study, reflection” – his inference being that too many of today’s young musicians want to take the short-cut to success. At La Scala, following Toscanini’s example, he would insist that singers attend 20 days of preliminary piano rehearsals.

But didn’t his uncompromising stance leave him open to charges of arrogance? Muti smiles, for such accusations have followed him throughout his career. “To be serious does not mean you are arrogant; it means being professional. That’s why I say: before we are artists let’s be professionals. At my age I’m not fighting for power or personal success. What I want is to work seriously. We’re talking about quality, not quantity, and you always have problems when you try to improve quality. It’s inevitable that you meet a certain resistance.”

At La Scala that resistance boiled over, though more because of internal politics than as a result of Muti’s musical demands. Since his abrupt resignation in 2005 many of the Scala musicians have gone out of their way to keep in touch with him. While noticeably reluctant to give his version of events, he admits he was sometimes “stupid [to put La Scala first] but I was right. I am proud of what we did – I’m sorry if that sounds arrogant. I conducted 43 different operas there. I will always remember those 19 years, but the door is now closed.”

If those words indicate a lingering bitterness and a determination never to return, they also symbolise a desire to move on. The rejuvenated Muti has been enjoying a love affair with the New York Philharmonic, which, he says, “seems to like playing for me”. He continues to work with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that he has conducted every year since 1971. As for London, “it was my second school [after Italy]. There are certain things I won’t forget, things that were very important for me as a young conductor, such as working with Janet Baker on Les Nuits d’Eté. The fact that the Queen later came to La Scala to award me, a southern Italian, an honorary knighthood makes me very proud.”

No work evokes memories of his early London career more strongly than Verdi’s Requiem, which he recorded with the Philharmonia in the late 1970s and returns to conduct next week. Muti learned his interpretation in Florence at the feet of the renowned Vittorio Gui, when Gui was 85 and he was 30. “The key to the Requiem comes at the end of the ‘Libera me’,” says Muti, relaxing into a subject dear to his heart. “Written in the score are the words lunga pausa [long silence]. The soprano has been saying ‘Please God, I’m defenceless, help me’. Long silence. What is God’s answer? Bang! – the thumping chords of the ‘Dies irae’. No mercy? Or perhaps Verdi believed there was nothing out there to offer hope. Molto complicato. This is the drama
of a modern man. The lunga pausa is part of the music, it’s a vacuum of intensity – but most conductors are impatient, they like to move their arms. They ignore the pause and go on. That’s why I say conducting is an illness . . . ”

Not in Muti’s case – but you don’t argue with “Maestro”. It is time for a nap before the evening concert. Muti picks up his scores, heads for the stage door and saunters across Piacenza’s historic central piazza towards his hotel.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Westminster Cathedral on March 14, followed by a tour to Budapest, Oviedo, Zaragoza, Valencia and Madrid.

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