Riccardo Muti: I don’t recognise my job any more

Riccardo Muti: I don’t recognise my job any more


norman lebrecht

June 28, 2021

From a pre-80th birthday interview with the Corriere:

Do you even recognize your job anymore?
Unfortunately not. Conducting has become a convenience profession. Often youngsters lead without long and serious studies. They deal with monumental works at the beginning of their activity, based on the efficiency of the gesture, sometimes of gesticulation.

Toscanini used to say the arms are the extension of the mind. Today many conductors use the podium for excessive showy gesticulations, trying to strike an audience more inclined to what they see and less to what they hear.”’

…Sometimes, perhaps exaggerating, I say that I am tired of life. I think I no longer belong to a world that is completely overturning those principles of culture, of ethics in art that I grew up with and that my teachers at the high school and at the conservatory communicated to me.

Read on here.


  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==I say that I am tired of life.

    Well, we’re tired of you , Riccardo

    • Chicagorat says:

      The Bill Clinton of classical music (literally) complains about lack of ethics on the job?

      The most shameless, hypocritical entertainer ever to have occupied such positions of power in the world of arts.

      • Music-lover says:

        You miss the entire point of what he says. You hate (envy?) of this musician blinds you to any message he is conveying. I agree completely with Muti’s view of the state of the arts and culture in America and Europe. Symphonic (Classical) music is now nothing more then entertainment and experiencing it is not a life-changing moment as it was and should be.
        I feel so sorry for you and your narrow view of life and culture.

        • Saxon says:

          Music-lover writes: “Symphonic (Classical) music is now nothing more then entertainment…”

          It has always been “entertainment”, even in the golden past.

      • Lash says:

        It’s not often that someone exposes their ignorance of music AND politics in one post! Well played!

    • Bernard Jacobson says:

      Speak for yourself, Mr. Kaznowski–“Well, we’re tired of you, Riccardo.” I have always thought, and still believe, that music, and art in general, serve to enhance and deepen the humanity of those who experience them.
      (As Handel once remarked when someone congratulated him on the success of a Messiah performance, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them–I wish to make them better.”) But as a regular reader of these columns, under the impact of the facile and hostile denigration that so many contributors routinely hurl at the artists being commented on, I am finding it increasingly and depressingly hard to retain my faith in that optimistic view.

      Riccardo Muti is perhaps the most frequent target of such attacks these days. In the 1980s, as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s management team, I worked for Muti for seven years, and in the course of my six decades of professional involvement with music, I can declare without hesitation that my time working for him was the most satisfying such association of my life. It was enriching, moreover, not only because of the quality of the musicianship it showcased, but because of the innumerable opportunities it gave me to observe the unwavering generosity, sensitivity, and sympathy he bestowed on every one of his colleagues and subordinates.

      Imagine: a front-desk player in the orchestra with a concerto date with a guest conductor looming three months in the future is racking his brain for a way to ask the Music Director if he could possibly take a couple of days off playing the demanding adjacent program, but doesn’t want to bother him while he is away in Milan preparing for the opening of another La Scala season. Then, out of the blue, he gets a call from the Orchestra office: Muti has himself telephoned Philadelphia to suggest that the player in question might like to do exactly that. It’s just one small example among the many I could have cited, but I have indeed encountered very few music directors who consistently display such deep involvement in the details of their organizations, or such unobtrusive care for the human beings working for them.

      • Chicagorat says:

        I thought you were a program annotator at the Philadelphia … is that the same as being part of the management team?

        You should hook up in Chicago with Phillip Huscher, Muti’s annotator and wanna-be biographer. He is also a lover of Muti’s clintonesque job ethics, with all that those entail (but Muti does not want those to be part of his biography).

        • John Kelly says:

          You diminish yourself sir.

        • Max Raimi says:

          I have encountered very few people in my life who do what they do nearly as well as Phillip does his job.
          Having written more than a few program notes myself, I have come to admire his craft enormously. In general, program notes err either on the side of the arcane (“and then we hear the subsidiary theme in retrograde inversion, transposed to the flatted submediant”) or the fatuous (“we can hear what a tragic time this was in the composer’s life from his choice of a minor key for this symphony”). Huscher manages to write notes that are comprehensible to the first time concert goer and yet offer food for thought even to those of us who have devoted our lives to classical music. This is an extraordinary achievement, and a significant contribution to the concert experience for our patrons.
          Indeed, I would argue that the program annotator has one of the most important jobs in an orchestra’s administration.

          • Paracelsus says:

            Putting craft aside, a writer, an interviewer, a journalist, an annotator can be free-spirited, bold, and honest. Or he can be fawning, toadying, and unctuous.

            We can let the public of Chicago and Philadelphia decide which type Mr. Huscher and Mr. Jacobson are.

            As to Muti, his ability to build a well oiled propaganda machine around himself, wherever he goes, is exceptional. He is the Master Propagandist with loyal servants in every major newspaper in every major country. The New York Times and, in the past, Guardian and Independent are notable exceptions.

            The free press, or more broadly the free intellectuals, are not that hard to get to. Often, all is needed is to give them small bites and glimpses of the imperial court. Most of them are hooked, sometimes for life.

        • Plush says:

          Dear Rat,
          Your ill considered opinions are now on deep discount here.

        • BigSir says:

          Rat, so who are you and what personal knowledge of Muti do you have?

        • Evan Tucker says:

          If you’re ‘CSOA’ posing under two names or if what they present as evidence is to what you refer, there’s got to be more than a few lewd jokes and temper tantrums if you or someone you know is going to charge of ‘Clintonesque ethics.’ Running his mouth is not enough, either he has done something to merit that level of innuendo or he hasn’t, but a few unfortunate words does not merit the kinds of actions to which you’re referring.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        Bernard, just ignore the nasty and quite vicious hate campaigns that some readers of this blog believe they are entitled to launch against established artists. In nearly every case they reach for their poisonous pens without a scintilla of constructive criticism. I can’t see into their minds to determine what warped emotions might fuel such tirades, but let me assure them that no matter how much they huff and puff and rant and scream, they will never come even remotely close to matching what these artists have achieved. They descend like a foul smell from some acrid cloud in the sky, just as they do on social media. The trolls are everywhere. That does not make their comments valid or justified, they are merely expressions of bile.

      • Amos says:

        Mr. Jacobson,

        You were the person I alluded to in an earlier post regarding the blatant conflict of interest when a writer both works for an orchestra and then reviews that orchestras recordings. Imagine that Mr. Muti had a congenial relationship with you when you lavished praise on his PO Brahms recordings, among others, which were roundly panned by virtually every other reviewer and after you chose to tell him that a Beethoven performance was the perfect amalgamation of Toscanini & Furtwangler. Regrettably a single thoughtful act doesn’t excuse a plethora of arrogant and thoughtless one’s.

  • Jean says:

    That’s why we need you, Riccardo

    • Gustavo says:

      I believe that all great music is composed, performed and consumed by individuals who are tired of profane life.

      Some call this decadence, others transcendence.

      But there is one thing that good music is definitely not: light entertainment that can simply be cancelled out of life.

      I think Riccardo Muti’s fin-de-siècle-style fatigue is probably based on the cold-heartedness with which certain profane areas of life were defined as systemically relevant during the pandemic while culture was left to its fate.

      In this sense, I fully agree with the maestro. In the face of death it is especially important to deal with death as such and to accept death as part of an everlasting life cycle.

      In other words, as a human being, it is important not to become completely dependent on the technocratic world with its illusion of eternal youth and happiness.

      • Jeff says:

        Interesting and beautiful comment. This is why upvotes and downvotes should be taken off comment pages because whether or not anyone agrees or disagrees with a comment like this, it is thought-provoking

    • Iowa Listener says:

      For a guy who is close to go, he surely never shuts the **** up.

  • Tamino says:

    “Today many conductors use the podium for excessive showy gesticulations, trying to strike an audience more inclined to what they see and less to what they hear.”

    That is so true. All these youngsters, where you can immediately see, what they conduct, what they imagine. The image of themselves in a mirror, moving the arms to a recording.

    When instead it should be hearing the internalised score, then hearing the sound the orchestra makes in reality, then reacting to it with efficient means of bodily expressions, to shape the real sound toward the imagined sound.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      It’s not only today’s young conductors who have indulged in showy gesticulations to conduct the audience more than the orchestra. There are plenty of examples from the past…

    • Gustavo says:

      Better shut your eyes then.

    • Barry says:

      “”“Today many conductors use the podium for excessive showy gesticulations, trying to strike an audience more inclined to what they see and less to what they hear.”

      That is so true. All these youngsters, where you can immediately see, what they conduct, what they imagine. The image of themselves in a mirror, moving the arms to a recording.”

      Agreed, but Muti could be considered guilty of that at times too in his early years. The Muti of today looks little like the Muti of 40 years ago in terms of his movements on the podium.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        I would bet old Muti probably thinks of his younger self as too kinetic and less knowledgeable.

        • Barry says:

          I’ve also thought that he would consider some of his older performances to be vulgar.

          I don’t necessarily agree with him.

      • Amos says:

        In the 80’s there was an ongoing wager at the Academy of Music to guess how long it would take for the first violent head movement backwards to cause the hair to be completely suspended in mid-air.

    • Our local young conductor has a silly gesture of holding his baton with both hands and swinging it back and forth like a baseball bat. The musicians have no idea what it means, musically.

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    Ah, Muti. With a soccer tournament in full flow, one is somehow reminded of Sven Goran Eriksson’s characteristic reaction to performances by the English XI when he was coaching them: ‘First half good; second half not so good’.

    In the case of Muti’s career, the first half was terrific. In the 70s he revived the Philharmonia, whose standards had slipped under the ailing Klemperer. In the 80s, he did the same for Philadelphia, where Ormandy had hung on too long. There were splendid nights at the opera, too: Verdi at Covent Garden, Cosi in Salzburg.

    It has, however, been much more of a curate’s egg since.

    The concerts I have heard Muti conduct in the past fifteen years have all been with the VPO, and these may not be representative of his recent work. None of them was bad: RM is musical and of course vastly experienced. Equally, though, none of them has been truly memorable. In their late seventies, Bohm, Karajan, Giulini and Harnoncourt (to name but a few) were giving concerts which conveyed real insights into their core repertoire. If Muti has been giving performances on that level, I’m afraid I have missed them. But perhaps I have, and others will tell us where they have been happening?

    • Fernandel says:

      I have been living in Berlin for 21 years and attended the Berlin Philharmonic concerts every week. In 2009, I heard Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C under Muti. Unforgettable.

      P.S. I have heard “live” Karajan, Böhm, Celibidache, Carlos Kleiber, Bernstein, Giulini, Abbado…

      • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

        Thank you for that. I still remember with pleasure a terrific Schubert ‘Great’ C major that the youngish Muti gave in London with the VPO in (I think) 1990.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Fernandel, I may have heard that Berlin concert too. Did it also feature a song cycle by Martucci, with Violeta Urmana singing? That is what stands out the most in my mind. Very beautiful. I remember an impression of intense rapport between Urmana and Muti, as if she had been “drilled” to within an inch of her life and were trying to honor every marking and textual shading. But it was one of her best performances.

    • CRWang says:

      I haven’t heard Muti in Vienna but hearing him at live concerts with the CSO in Chicago has been great.

    • Fabrizio says:

      We all change over time. I have been going to Muti’s concerts and operas since 1993. Not really “following” him everywhere, I had time in the past to attend many occasions, even with the CSO before his tenure started there and with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Berliner also. Could speak for many “diverse” situations as the one in which I attended in the same week the performances in Berlin of the Brahms second symphony and the following week with the Wiener at the Musikverein. Seemed two worlds actually. We all change and “mature”. In different ways. His performances in Stockholm with the local orchestra of the Macbeth remain in my heart notwithstanding the great occasions in which I heard Macbeth in Italy with him. I am glad that he is still working a lot. And that he is still pushing musicians sometimes beyond the comfort zone. My two cents.

    • Barry says:

      Well said. I’ve also mentioned on here that while Muti’s knowledge and ability to get what he wants may be superior now to where he was during the 70s and early 80s, he was a much more exciting and passionate conductor back then.

      The most recent performances of Schubert’s 9th and Brahms’ 2nd I’ve heard from him, both online broadcasts with the CSO, were just flat out dull, both in comparison to what they should be and to how Muti was conducting those pieces years ago.

      I saw him conduct Schubert’s 9th twice in Philadelphia, once at the Academy and once as part of an outdoor summer concert at the Mann Center.

    • BRUCEB says:

      Thank you – I had never heard the term “curate’s egg” before.


    • Chicago Nut says:

      Yes. you’ve missed them. They have been in Chicago the last 10 years. Life-changing concerts and heart-felt interpretations from a seasoned veteran conductor who has something to say and gets it across to his musicians without a Cirque du Soleil performance.

  • fflambeau says:

    It’s a wide-ranging interview. Thanks for posting it.

  • justin says:

    Toscanini would have said the same thing if he saw Muti conducting.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Bravo, Maestro. Completely true. I said it before on SD, and I have been criticized for it.

  • Maria says:

    I thought the role of a conductor was to secure work for the rest of Askonas Cult’s list.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    > “…youngsters… deal with monumental works at the beginning of their activity…”

    The Maestro needs perhaps to be reminded what the début of his dear colleague Claudio Abbado in Salzburg was : Mahler 2nd.
    In 1965, at the tender age of 33. Invited by a flabbergasted Karajan. Using some of the most effective, spare, expressive gestures ever displayed on a podium.

    > “I think I no longer belong to a world that is completely overturning those principles of culture, of ethics in art that I grew up with and that my teachers at the high school and at the conservatory communicated to me.”

    It is legitimate to ask whether Maestro Muti has fully lived up to those principles, and whether he has been transmitting them onwards in the same vein.

  • CSOA Insider says:

    This is ethical:

    – to state that Jennifer Higson is twice lucky: she has a great career because she is a “woman and a lesbian”
    – to mock Maestro Nézet-Séguin, calling him “finocchio mezza sega” (note: Maestro Nézet-Séguin had shown him only respect, kindness and deference)
    – to deride Noseda and Dudamel as “open mouth sharks”
    – to call the Zells, who pay for a multi-million dollar salary, arrogant and vulgar rich Americans; deriding Ms. Zell’s appearance behind her back and labeling Mr. Zell a “rabbino”
    – to show up in Chailly’s office and tell Chailly to “get out of his balls”
    – to routinely mock the CSO administrative staff as incompetent idiots
    – to make d*** and p*** jokes a favorite subject of office conversations
    – to make the office a hunting terrain …

    Shall we go on?

    • John Kelly says:

      ….only if you be more specific in the manner of a diary an HR department or a Labor lawyer would take more than a passing glance at………

    • Evan Tucker says:

      If the office is a hunting terrain, you have to be more specific. Whatever he’s done, if it’s consensual, there are many conductors who’ve clearly done much worse, and calling him a ‘Bill Clinton’ figure is not above board when Clinton has clearly done things that are of the James Levine level. If you have a real charge other than being yet another conductor who runs his mouth when he shouldn’t, speak up, get someone else to speak up, or stop making innuendos you can’t back up.

  • Gustavo says:

    I wish I could retreat to an olive grove forever.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Those of us who are of a similar generation have sentiments much the same. We no longer recognise the world in which we live. One leading orchestra, presumably chasing after the Dudamel effect, appointed as its new chief conductor a man who up to that point had never conducted it in any work by Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert/Schumann/Brahms/Bruckner/Mahler. But by golly could we wave his arms about like windmills. Style over substance. And if we take a look at the crop of young pianists and violinists, most of whom now come from Asia, is there anything apart from technical wizardry that they have to offer? Where is the individual personality? You could recognise a Heifetz or Oistrakh by their sound, an Arrau or Kempff by their touch. Blandness now reigns supreme. Take a look at the plethora of conducting competitions now gracing the world stage: hundreds apply, a few are picked out as finalists (often by people who are least able to judge what orchestras need), and of the lucky winners a mere handful make it to the top. Generations ago you started at the lowest level, most obviously as a repetiteur in an opera house, and learnt your craft on a daily basis, realising that one important attribute is the ability to breathe with singers and instrumentalists. These days you can win a competition and within a year or so you’ll be in charge of a known symphony orchestra. This is also a form of madness.

  • William Lansbury says:

    He is right about this yes, but the wrong person to be saying this. Everyone seems so hell bent on defending and sucking up to him as if he were a genius, I don’t even see why.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Well, he loves donkeys and knows how to appreciate their intelligence. Favorite part of the interview: “…e due asini sardi, Gaetano e Lampo: intelligentissimi. Si affezionano, ti guardano interrogativi con i loro occhi rosa… E noi diamo del cane e dell’asino come se fossero insulti”

  • Dennis says:

    “I say that I am tired of life. I think I no longer belong to a world that is completely overturning those principles of culture, of ethics in art that I grew up with…”

    I’m no where near 80, but can already endorse this sentiment. Cheers, Riccardo!

  • Schneebart says:

    Chicagoan here… I am tired of Muti and cannot wait for his tenure at the CSO to end.

  • Rob says:

    He does a great Elgar In the South

  • BP says:

    I came across a second-hand copy of Peter Heyworth’s Conversations with Klemperer recently, wholly confirming Muti’s sentiment : Klemperer was saying the very same thing fifty years ago !

    • Alexander Hall says:

      It’s worth underlining what Klemperer actually said: “the mediocrities, they are the emperors today”(page 122). On the other hand, and perhaps surprisingly, Klemperer was quite complimentary about his contemporaries, including Nikisch, Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Karajan, reserving the greatest praise for Boulez, presumably because he valued him as a fellow-composer. His views about the need “to mature” are rather more controversial, especially when he argues that “one cannot begin with Wozzeck and end with a Haydn symphony”. Programming does not always have to be chronological.

  • Jack says:

    He is right.

  • Gustavo says:

    The greatest interpretations are often born in such a death-yearning Zauberbergesque state of mind.

  • Tod Verklärung says:

    As has been noted above by others, Muti expresses a generational sentiment among those of us who can remember the giants we heard in a world that has passed on. However, what struck me more than this, is the implicit self-aggrandizement and self-pity Muti also expressed, at least in the English translation.