Riccardo Muti Talks About the Power of Music (Part 1)

By Richard Scheinin
rscheinin@mercurynews.com

Next week, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs in San Francisco for the first time since 1987, Riccardo Muti will be on the podium. This eminent conductor is practically a brand name, synonymous with La Scala (where he was music director from 1986 to 2005), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92) and other great orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, with which he enjoys an association of 40 years.

But when I spoke by phone with Muti -- now in his second season as Chicago's music director -- he became most engaged when discussing prisons. Yes, prisons.

Muti makes a point of performing in them, because he believes, he says, in the life-enhancing powers of music for people from all walks of life.

We talked, as well, about his decision to come to Chicago, about the orchestra's San Francisco programs (which range from Schubert to young Mason Bates) and other topics touching on his long career. But Maestro Muti kept coming back to music's potential as a bridge builder. Read on.

Q Maestro, I've heard about your visits to the Illinois Youth Center, a women's detention center near Chicago.

A I've done this also in Italy, where I went to a prison near Milan (and) played the piano for about two hours for 150 incarcerated men and women. And I explained the music and the life of the conductor, and the attention of the people was so deep that, when I came to Chicago I thought I had to do the same.

Q Why is it important to you?

A We have to bring music to parts of the city that are far away, culturally speaking, from the possibility of coming to our concert hall. Last year we performed a concert in the Apostolic Church near Chicago University -- a huge church -- and we had so many people, thousands of people who had never been in a concert hall. And they were very appreciative, and they followed the concert with absolute silence, but not silence without interest. Full participation.

And last year and this year, too, I went to this prison of juveniles, in Warrenville, outside Chicago, and I brought some singers, who have helped these girls to learn music. I accompanied these singers, who sang arias by Verdi, Puccini, Bellini. And the girls of this prison were so impressed that some of them came to my rehearsal with the orchestra here in Chicago. They were accompanied by two ladies, and they followed the rehearsal of "Carmina Burana" and the rest of the program -- a Schubert symphony and something by a contemporary Russian composer named Smirnov, though it has nothing to do with vodka! 

(This interview was first published by San Jose Mercury News and is used by permission)