Riccardo Muti quits La Scala amid turmoil


April 05, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In case you haven't heard, one of today's greatest conductors has been booted out of one of history's greatest opera houses in one of the juiciest scandals to hit the classical music biz in ages.

Bowing to the inevitable, Riccardo Muti resigned Saturday as principal conductor (and untitled ruler) of La Scala in Milan - an announcement that hit news desks heavily preoccupied with events in another Italian city.

The action follows charges and countercharges, at least one firing (the superintendent of the opera house, perceived as a Muti foe), strikes by unions and assorted other activity considered almost routine, maybe even fun, in that country's cultural life.

"Despite the signs of esteem expressed to me by the board of directors," read Muti's statement, "the hostility manifested in such a coarse way by people with whom I have worked for almost 20 years makes it really impossible to carry on with a relationship of collaboration, which ought to be based on harmony and trust."

Muti's interpretive ideas didn't please everyone. His generally propulsive tempos were not always singer-friendly, for example, and he banned traditional, unwritten high notes, which didn't sit well with a lot of opera fans.

His choice of repertoire aroused some complaints. This season, for the reopening of La Scala after extensive renovations, he unearthed an obscure, crowd-displeasing piece by Antonio Salieri that probably won't be heard for at least another 200 years.

And he kept singers on tenterhooks by hiring double casts for productions and not deciding who would go on opening night until the last minute.

Still, no one would deny Muti's basic artistic gifts and his ability to generate musical heat. He's not likely to disappear. He'll just find another stage - possibly on these shores. His career has included a 12-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he was heavily courted by the New York Philharmonic for the music director job that finally went to Lorin Maazel. Muti left the Philharmonic standing at the altar, but perhaps could be enticed back to succeed Maazel, who is set to depart in 2009.

Then again, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a music director post to fill, with Yuri Temirkanov leaving after next season. Maybe Muti would be up for an off-beat offer, something that would totally disarm his critics.

And we've at least got a Little Italy to offer him.

You're right, I don't believe for a second he'll consider Charm City. But it was worth a brief daydream.

Wherever this fiery Italian with a reputation for dictatorial tendencies ends up next, the music world is bound to get an interesting jolt.

Soulful Symphony

There was some serious praise shaking the Meyerhoff on Friday night as the Soulful Symphony celebrated the power of gospel music. Founder/artistic director Darin Atwater led a program devoted to stirring gospel songs by Richard Smallwood, who joined the action onstage to sing some of them.

The well-packed house - Soulful Symphony has enjoyed an amazing response in its first season under a collaborative arrangement with the BSO - took Atwater up on his invitation to get into the spirit. This was a fully active audience.

The terrific vitality from the chorus, and the several soloists within it, never abated. The orchestra's contribution registered strongly as well.

The variety in Smallwood's music (wonderfully active harmonies in Hosanna, for example), the vividness of the arrangements and, above all, the intensity and sincerity of the performances made a long evening seem short.

Soulful Symphony returns next season with a compelling mix, including William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1, Quincy Jones' Soulful Celebration, excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Duke Ellington's arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and two world premieres by Atwater: Southern Folk Sketches and Evolution of a People. Call 410-783-8000.

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