CHICAGO Outside Orchestra Hall, posters in display cases breathlessly exclaimed, "Benvenuto Maestro!"
Inside the hall, Riccardo Muti held his first news conference in the city since being named the 10th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The media meet-and-greet was sandwiched between a dinner with CSO board members and a lunch with orchestra musicians.
The charismatic Italian conductor, 66, submitted to these nonmusical duties with charm, warmth and modesty, not to mention a good deal more patience than you would expect from one of the senior eminences of the music world who has addressed gatherings far more august than this.
Speaking in the lilting cadences of his native Naples, Muti sounded like a practiced Chicago politician as he praised the great orchestra he inherited last month, as well as the musical community and city he clearly is eager to get to know better.
Along the way, the maestro cracked self-deprecating jokes of the sort you would never associate with the strong-willed former music director of Milan's Teatro alla Scala whom some employees once branded a tyrant.
He deftly defused a ticklish inquiry about his stormy departure from the famed opera house in 2005. Prior to his resignation, Muti calmly observed, the theater's 100 ushers took a no-confidence vote against him. "I understand ushers can be very musical, but ...," he quipped, letting the thought trail off into general laughter.
A self-confessed "simple man, essentially a southern Italian peasant," he said he didn't own an iPod and that, until just the other day, thought iPod was the name of a racehorse. (A CSO publicist later made a point of presenting him one as a gift.)
So began a victory march that will bring Muti to Chicago in an official capacity in September 2010, when he will launch the first season of his five-year contract. As music director-designate, he will conduct three performances of the Verdi Requiem next January as well as two weeks of subscription concerts during the 2009-10 season.
Yet to be determined is how a European-trained music director of Muti's strong ideas and temperament will fit in with the recent programming and marketing initiatives of Deborah R. Card's administration. It's no secret that Card, the CSO association president, and Daniel Barenboim were at loggerheads over these and other issues toward the end of the latter's CSO tenure, which ended in 2006.
Are there points of potential conflict between Muti and Card as well? I put the question to Card, whose zealous courtship of the former Scala chief over a three-year period was crucial in clinching the deal.
"We have a really good ability to understand and communicate very openly and honestly with each other," said the orchestra's CEO. "There is no dissimilarity in our views of how we broaden the repertory and how we present it in such a way that people are really open to coming and buying tickets. He's very excited about how we can bring more people to our concerts."
When I sat down to talk with Muti later in the day, I found a man of lively intelligence, quick wit, broad culture, deeply held musical and moral convictions (they are practically synonymous in his mind).
The man is perfectly at home whether delving into the broad symphonic and operatic repertory he has at his fingertips or the complex problems of Italian society. ("My country has a lot of defects, but there still are a lot of good things besides food," he observed with a smile.)
Muti was loath to discuss specifics about his programming plans and other directions in which he hopes to take the orchestra. He and Card soon will sit down to map out his repertory for 2010 and beyond, he said.
Still, playing new works by Chicago and other domestic composers while bringing to the city the best contemporary music from around the world will be essential. "We should not be provincial in taking care only of American composers," said Muti, and in fact his strong commitment to playing American music stands in stark contrast to Barenboim's almost total aversion to it.
Chicago's new maestro said he's particularly enthused about expanding the CSO's community engagement and outreach, taking the orchestra into different neighborhoods of the city and taking various CSO chamber music groups into "schools, hospitals, even prisons."
If Muti can help to bridge the centuries-old enmities between peoples in such troubled cities as Sarajevo and Jerusalem (which he has done for the last 19 years with his "Road to Friendships" concerts in conjunction with Italy's Ravenna Festival), why couldn't the soon-to-be most powerful musician in Chicago bring various Chicago neighborhoods closer through music?
At Barenboim's first Chicago news conference after being named music director in 1989, he was asked what he would change about the orchestra. "The only thing I could change," he said, "would be to make it worse."
Muti is of similar philosophy. Change, he told me, is inevitable whenever a music director comes into an orchestra. "But the change will come naturally, because every music director has his own concept of sound, phrasing, interpretation, style. You don't ever want to impose anything" on an orchestra of the CSO's stature and quality, whose players often have musical ideas every bit as strong as the conductor's.
A firm believer in the American work ethic, Muti repeatedly stressed the importance of "hard work" in the collaboration between a music director and his musicians, noting that the CSO players are as eager as he to dig even further into the scores they have performed hundreds of times before.
A virtuoso conductor who marries exactitude and fidelity to the composers' intentions with Italianate warmth and lyricism, Muti is a poetic perfectionist when it comes to musical interpretation.
I asked him if his philosophy of conducting has changed in any way now that he has joined Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez in the CSO's senior triumvirate of podium leaders.
"When I started my conducting career I was very electric," Muti said. "I wanted to prove that I was in charge. Now, more and more, my gestures are becoming more minimal. But because I come from the Toscanini school of conducting, even with minimal gestures I still take care of the precision.
"I believe I am able to bring the orchestra together less through the baton than what I have inside," he added, placing his hand over his heart. "I never think about what I am doing when I am conducting an orchestra. I simply feel the expression (of the music)."
Muti is not coming to Chicago to parade himself as a glamorous jet-setting maestro. Nor is he coming here to prove how well he can conduct yet another CSO performance of yet another Beethoven symphony. He has nothing to prove to anybody, since what is there left to prove for a musician who has done it all in an extraordinary career?
Muti said he regards the Chicago Symphony as a momentous personal coda, the final music directorship he expects to hold in his life. He seems determined to give it his most serious and vigorous attention, clearly focused on his central objective enlarging the audience for great music here while taking the Chicago Symphony to even greater heights, at home and around the world.
Only time will tell, of course, how well he will be able to translate noble intentions into actual achievements. Still, even the few remaining skeptics must admit Muti is off to a great start. More than two years before officially taking up the CSO baton, he has benignly conquered the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and the CSO's extended family. The rest of Chicago comes next.