Our Maestro: How Riccardo Muti Accepted the Position of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
By: Susan Synnestvedt, CSO violinist since 1986
There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air at Orchestra Hall on the morning of September 11, 2007. The world-famous maestro, Riccardo Muti, was about to walk onstage and start our first rehearsal together. Maestro Muti hadn’t conducted the CSO for over 30 years, so most of us had never worked with him before, but I felt like I knew more than most about the Maestro. I attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia while Maestro Muti was Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember banners fluttering throughout center-city Philadelphia with the words, Tutti per Muti, emblazoned on them. I went to many Muti-led concerts, sitting way up high at the Academy of Music.
While a senior at Curtis, I was asked to be a violin substitute for a special concert with Maestro Muti conducting. It was a quick one-rehearsal, one-concert program. The piano soloist was Rudolf Serkin, whose Marlboro Chamber Music Festival I had attended the previous summer. Mr. Serkin was performing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, a standard that everyone but me had played before! I could barely enjoy Serkin’s beautiful playing because I had to concentrate very intently on the old, yellowed second violin part. I certainly didn’t want to play where I wasn’t supposed to. I also played Ravel’s Bolero for the first time during that concert. I remember being impressed with Maestro Muti’s elegance on the podium, but I don’t remember him saying a word during that rehearsal.
After more than twenty years, I was curious to see the Maestro again that September morning. Maestro Muti strode onto the stage at Orchestra Hall and began to speak. He introduced himself in a melodious baritone voice with charming Italian-accented English. The Maestro was funny, self-effacing and he quickly put us all at ease. When he began to conduct, it was as if we’d all been making music together for years. That was a relief, because we had two weeks of rehearsals and concerts scheduled in Chicago, and then a two-week tour of Europe. Taking an international tour with a conductor we’d never worked with seemed like a gamble, but the tour was wonderful, with everyone enjoying this new musical relationship between Maestro Muti and the Orchestra. There was no doubt that we wanted this relationship to continue. But Maestro Muti had made it clear that he wasn’t interested in being the leader of another American orchestra.
The CSO had been without a Music Director since June of 2006. We were very fortunate to have had the marvelous Bernard Haitink serve as Principal Conductor since then, but he didn’t want the responsibilities of being a full-time leader of the CSO. During that European tour in the fall of 2007, it was obvious to the musicians that Riccardo Muti should become our next Music Director. But how? Could he possibly be persuaded? Our bass trombone player, Charlie Vernon, had played in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Maestro Muti and they had remained friends ever since. Knowing that the Maestro preferred traditional forms of communication, Charlie's wife, Alison suggested that we each write a letter to Maestro thanking him for the fantastic tour and letting him know that we’d like him to consider being our Music Director. Nearly every CSO musician wrote Maestro a heartfelt, hand-written letter; the letters were all sent together in one large envelope to Maestro’s house in Ravenna, Italy.
Cut to May 2008. A special meeting had been called on a Monday, a day off for the musicians, at Symphony Center. We were encouraged to attend, so I got into my car for the trip downtown. I was dying to know what was going on, and hoped that somehow Maestro Muti would be involved. As I turned on my car radio, WFMT was announcing that Riccardo Muti would become the tenth Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I like to think that our letters to Maestro Muti played a part in his decision.