Okay, Okay, Okay, I’ll Write About Muti

Riccardo Muti is scheduled to take over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and the cultural blogosphere is abuzz with commentary and since I don’t want to get another 40 odd email messages asking why I haven’t written anything about yet I decided to finally weigh-in. Frankly, I’m not certain why there is so much chatter since the whole scenario is relatively cut and dry. Most of the discussion centers on three primary points, all of which can be addressed with bite-sized answers…

1) Muti took the Chicago job as a way of thumbing his nose at New York and Milan.

If true, this is shocking to anyone, how? Don’t forget that
after years of rebuffing offers from Philadelphia Orchestra management
to return and conduct, the only time Muti accepted was amidst a full
blown labor conflict and only after the musicians
asked. Consequently, the (now departed) Philly board and administrative leadership were left with more than just egg on their face.

2) Old-school conductors like Muti are dinosaurs that didn’t get the memo about being extinct.

Although the Ponce de León school of hiring music directors
might like the idea of an under-50 litmus test, each orchestra is
(thankfully) different and the person they select as music director
should be instrumental (no pun intended) in serving as a catalyst for
allowing the ensemble to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Based on my time in Chicago, tradition seems to work well with the
ensemble. In fact, I hear many of the same adjectives used to describe
Dudamel and Gilbert coming from patrons who attend CSO concerts led by
Haitink (Muti’s elder no less). Personally, having heard the ensemble
on several occasions with Barenboim at the end of his tenure and
Haitink at the begging of his, I think the ensemble far more energized
and exiting with the latter. As such, scratch the generation discussion
off the list.

3) Muti brings an elitist attitude to the podium.

Speaking candidly, I wasn’t thrilled with Muti’s lecturing
patrons (albeit polite and sincere) who applauded between movements
during one of his Chicago concerts this season. It was the wrong thing
to do and I don’t agree with most of the points he made. But on the
other hand, you can’t argue against the vitalized artistic quality he
has managed to cajole from the ensemble and frankly, if I’m attending a
Muti concert and the ensemble moves me enough to applaud between
movements, I’ll damned well do it regardless of the maestro’s feelings.
I think he is a strong enough to endure it. Worst case scenario is that
the CSO is going to have to work overtime to make the concert
experience as inviting as possible (more on that below).

Closing Thoughts

Will Muti be the next Solti? Probably not, and that’s a good
thing. My observations lead me to believe that the orchestra, and the
city at large, is still in mourning over Solti’s passing. It is both
touching and tragic. At the same time, when compared to his
predecessor, I suspect Muti will do more for the orchestra in the long
run while simultaneously providing some much needed closure. Add to
that another few years to wallow around in the glorious music making
that is Haitink and Chicago has a promising decade in store.

Frankly, if Muti’s tenure produces a critical mass capable of building a new concert hall worthy
of this organization and its patrons then history will look back on it
as a gargantuan success (conductors don’t keep me away from Orchestra
Hall, Orchestra Hall keeps me away from Orchestra Hall). At
minimum, expect a fantastic series of recordings, some heavily
publicized tours, improved new music programming, and a headline
stealing antic here and there (and there, and there).

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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3 thoughts on “Okay, Okay, Okay, I’ll Write About Muti

  1. Do they need to build a new hall from the ground up, or do they need to do massive renovations to the old one? I’ve never been, so I know nothing about the place. But given that it’s called “Orchestra Hall” I think I see a naming opportunity in the future. . .

    Raising money for bricks and mortar considered the hardest kind of money to raise in the broader non-profit world. It that equally true in orchestra fundraising?

    Orchestra Hall recently underwent a very expensive renovation that provided much needed backstage space, offices, a cafe, and some significant changes inside the sound chamber. But the consensus is that the acoustic improvements (the real heart of any hall) fell far short (John Von Rhein wrote an excellent article on the topic awhile back, my apologies for not having the link at hand) – an assessment which I wholehearted concur. given the shortage of prime building space in downtown Chicago, I doubt they could locate a suitable building to start from scratch. Consequently, if a new location never materializes a solution might be to dynamite what’s there and rebuild from scratch while the orchestra performs in a temporary home for a few years.

    Granted, that’s some hefty dreaming on my part but capital campaigns surrounding brick and motor projects are some of the most successful fundraising campaigns, especially compared to far less sexy (but equally crucial) projects like building an endowment. ~ Drew McManus

  2. Orchestra Hall is much better than it was. However, one can say that it is not as good as it used to be (before the 1966 remodeling)

    Let’s not waste money on a new hall. It is relatively unimportant compared to building the orchestra’s endowment. I hardly believe that it is worth your starting a discussion about whether Orchestra Hall keeps you away from hearing the orchestra. Before you ever arrived here, all the discussion was already had, brother.

    Besides, in its current guise the hall is a very good recording hall.

    I loved Solti by the way. Orchestra never sounded better with the brass sound bombing off the back plaster wall. He is sorely missed and you’ll make enemies if you persist in calling our remembrance “tragic.”

    Hudson, I think you may have inadvertently misinterpreted how the term “tragic” was being applied. I wasn’t referring to Solti’s remembrance as a tragic event, rather, his passing was a tragic event. Meaning the event contained elements of tragedy: i.e. involving death and grief. As such, your assessment that he is sorely missed is precisely the point being made. I hope that clarifies the point.

    Regarding the value of an endowment over a new hall, I suppose it depends on whether or not those events are mutually exclusive. Personally, I don’t see them that way. A thorough brick and motor style capital campaign must contain an operating endowment component in order to be sincerely successful in the long run so in that since I think we place the same value on the need to boost the organization’s endowment. ~ Drew McManus

  3. Certainly not a new idea, but one that is commonly held. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of six sticks of dynamite?

    http://championsofsound.blogspot.com/2007/04/six-sticks-of-dynamite.html

    Thank you so much for pointing that Louis Sullivan story. For the life of me I couldn’t rememebr the exact quote when I was writing the article although I wanted to include it. Consequently, I just left it out but I am so glad to see someone mention it! ~ Drew McManus

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