Muti and Friends Combat Crime with Culture

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Burleigh, Bach, Pryor, Shanahan, Glenworth, Beethoven: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Eric Owens (bass-baritone), Riccardo Muti (piano), Jennifer Gunn (piccolo), Gene Pokorny (tuba), Cynthia Yeh (percussion). Illinois Youth Center, Chicago, IL. 25.9.2016. Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Apostolic Church of God, Chicago, IL. 13.10.2016. (DP)

Riccardo Muti and Eric Owens at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
Riccardo Muti and Eric Owens at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Handel – “Lascia chi’io pianga” from Rinaldo (Joyce DiDonato, mezzo soprano, Riccardo Muti, piano)
Heggie – “Si, son io” from Great ScottVerdi – “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani Burleigh (arr.) – “Deep River” (Eric Owens, bass-baritone, Riccardo Muti, piano)
Bach – Double Violin Concerto (arranged for flute and tuba) (Jennifer Gunn, piccolo, Gene Pokorny, tuba)
Pryor – “Blue Bells of Scotland” & (Gene Pokorny, tuba)
Shanahan – Saidi Swing & Glentworth – Blues for Gilbert (Cynthia Yeh, percussion)
Beethoven – Leonore Overture No.3, Op.72b; Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 (Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

“Sometimes I am forced to conduct music I don’t like,” Riccardo Muti admits to a room full of incarcerated male juveniles at the Illinois Youth Center on Chicago’s West side on a fall Sunday afternoon.

It is a day off for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director, but Muti has spent it preparing and now presenting a program with vocalists and CSO musicians, all like Muti, volunteering their time. This is his eighth visit to a Chicago-area correctional institution since becoming CSO music director in 2010, and his second to this particular facility.

Like the handful of visitors present, all of the participating artists had gone through background checks, were given a list of do’s and don’t’s, were put through a metal detector and hand frisked and could bring nothing inside, and were allowed no keys, no cellphones—only a mandatory photo ID to gain access behind the barbed-wire iron gates which are controlled by guards buzzing in outsiders, one at a time.

“We are here to perform some ‘classical’ music for you: that worries you, no?” says Muti, as he suddenly turns and looks directly at a restless resident. “Music that you never heard before, sometimes different than music you hear a lot.

“Who am I? I’m Italian,” says Muti, which receives some giggles, given his obvious accent. “Southern Italian,” Muti clarifies. “I studied in Napoli and Milano. My father thought studying music was important for culture. I was reluctant. I couldn’t read music and my father thought we should stop paying for lessons.

As mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, sporting a shoulderless long black dress, gets up from her seat and comes to the front of the room, Muti situates himself at the grand piano with his glasses and score. DiDonato is in Chicago making her CSO debut with a Muti favorite that she is singing for the first time, Martucci’s haunting song cycle La canzone dei ricordi. Muti announces, “We’re going to start with a very famous lady singing a very famous German aria.”

“Well, not Beyoncé famous,” DiDonato humorously quips to the curious assemblage, “but opera famous, which is a different thing. This is a piece I love to sing because it is an audience favorite. My character is in prison, and we are there with her. She is isolated, emotional and crying. It repeats a beautiful melody several times, but more elaborately. Do you know the Hallelujah Chorus? Anyone?” A couple of residents raise their hands. “This is the same guy who wrote that,” DiDonato says as she takes a long pause before starting into an extraordinarily poignant “Lascia chi’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo that vibrantly fills the room, supported by Muti’s remarkably restrained ethereal piano accompaniment.

The concentration of the inmates seems focused on the sheer beauty of the sound, a stunning contrast to the bleak and gray fluorescent-lit room and its uniformity: juveniles all in sky-blue denim shirts neatly tucked into jeans, and sitting on folded chairs. Some have their eyes closed. Others are looking away. A handful are watching DiDonato intently.

One resident is having a bit of a laugh attack near the end of the piece, after which Muti goes over to him and says jovially, “You look very happy, this is supposed to be a sad aria! You know, I come from the south of Italy, I can be very dangerous!”

DiDonato sings a couple of short Italian songs and closes with an aria in Italian from Great Scott, “an opera written for me a year ago by Jake Heggie,” noting that “all opera is not old music and that not all opera composers are dead! In this one, there is an opera within the opera, where I am being held captive at Mount Vesuvius and at the end, she throws herself into the volcano: surprise! See if you can hear it.” Muti adds, “Si, near the city I was born!” as DiDonato passionately delivers the death scene to his attentive accompaniment followed by rapt applause.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens comes up wearing a navy blue button-down shirt with its tails out. He is an imposing figure and the young male audience is taking in his larger-than-life presence carefully. Owens has moved to Chicago, since accepting his first-ever Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle at Lyric Opera over four consecutive seasons through 2020.

“This is another famous singer,” says Muti, “a basso. He is going to sing Verdi. Do any of you know who Verdi is?” No one raises a hand. Muti looked like he might try to explain, but instead, allowed Verdi’s “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani speak for itself.

“This is about two guys,” says Owens in a mellifluously low speaking voice. “One is a Grand Duke of Spanish nobility and the other is the King of Spain. The Duke is in the bedroom of his fiancé and the disguised King finds him there. He’s in the most sacred room of the house. What am I seeing? What is happening? Why do I, an old man, have the passion of a young man?”

Along with the drama of the scene, the force of Owens’s sound and the lowness of its timbre does hold the inmates’ interest. Muti, of course, is in his element playing Verdi. Still, that did not prepare the young man for the experience that followed, Owens’s rendition of the spiritual “Deep River,” presented without a spoken introduction.

The young men clearly knew the song, and it was also the first time that they heard something sung in their own language. Owens was in radiant form—mesmerizing as he intoned its yearning for freedom with a prayerful and confident calm.

Muti’s lyrical accompaniment, exquisitely rendered, was all the more remarkable since he would later admit that he had never heard the spiritual before learning it earlier that day. That was a fascinating confession, given Muti’s obvious frustration that none of the young men knew who Verdi was: Muti has culture gaps of his own that even at 75, he is committed to—and clearly edified by—filling in.

Muti was also encouraging to a group of female inmates visiting from the Illinois Youth Center in west suburban Warrenville, a facility Muti also regularly visits. They came to sing an original song for him that they wrote, part of a musical to be presented there next year.

In the portion featuring CSO musicians, demonstrating the instruments were as important as the performances. Principal tuba Gene Pokorny made fun of the tuba’s size, asking the residents if they had ever seen one before. Most had not. “Have you every heard it before?” he asks, to a similar response. “Well, you mostly hear it in a polka context as the rhythm and bottom end of the music,” he said, while demonstrating a classic oom-pah-pah. “But how about this?” Pokorny began slowly intoning the opening notes of John Williams’ theme from Jaws and the five-note motif in the climax from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

“We’re going to do something fun and use the highest and the lowest instruments of the orchestra, including the piccolo, which is a small flute, and the lowest instrument of the orchestra, the tuba,” Pokorny says as he introduces Jennifer Gunn, who shows them her piccolo and demonstrates its high range.

The pair launch into an arranged transcription of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with the piccolo and the tuba taking not only the violin solo lines, but also a sketch score of the orchestral accompaniment. The sheer virtuosity of this feat makes an impression, as Muti and the other artists smile in delight at the absurdity of the concept, yet amazed that the essence of Bach is still communicated.

Then Pokorney added several fiendishly virtuosic arrangements of popular songs that showcase “something that the tuba is rarely called upon to do—play the melody.”

To end the program, CSO principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh performed Saidi Swing (written by Silk Road Ensemble percussionist Shane Shanahan) on a solo African djembe—a more familiar soundscape with its pulsating rhythms and backbeat—followed by the tangy Blues for Gilbert, originally written by British percussionist Mark Glentworth for vibraphone, in memory of his teacher, Gilbert Webster, longtime principal percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra.

“Behind what they did is a lot of work,” Muti adds at the end. “Culture makes the world better. I hope everything will be fine for you.”

A post-concert reception offers the resident attendees an opportunity to have sandwiches and cake and personally connect with Muti and the artists, and the dialogue is surprisingly personal and candid. Muti assures everyone that he “will be back,” and that he will arrange for anyone who is interested, to “come and see me, too. I will invite you to a rehearsal.” Some of the inmates have already experienced one, and Muti remembers them as they speak.

Two-and-a-half weeks later on a Thursday evening, Muti and the CSO present a free all-Beethoven program at the Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South side, the second time Muti and the orchestra had performed a free concert there (the last time was in 2011). This particular occasion is the kickoff of a new CSO initiative called the African-American Engagement Network, which will feature regular chamber music concerts featuring CSO musicians across city neighborhoods. As Chicago politicians argue for more police and strategize ways to combat the city’s astronomical crime rate—the highest in the United States—Muti advocates for more culture as the solution.

In a pre-concert reception with members of the Civic Orchestra (the CSO’s training ensemble) joined with members of the Apostolic Church of God youth orchestra, the combined forces delighted some 3,000 community guests with “Amazing Grace” and the Prelude to Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

After being introduced by the church’s pastor and being greeted like a rock star, Muti departed from the announced program and began with a rollicking spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” joined by the Chatham Choral Ensemble with five guest vocalists. The crowd was so moved that Muti asked everyone to stand, as is traditional during what is unofficially known as the Black National Anthem.

Afterward, Muti spoke of performing it in Philadelphia for a Martin Luther King celebration, and how moved he was by its beauty and message of freedom. “We are very happy to be here a second time, and we hope we will be able to come very often,” he said, to immense applause. Turning to the choir, he added, “That B-flat was very powerful—I was really enjoying it and might have let it go on too long!”

The Leonore Overture No. 3 followed, in a subdued and transparent traversal that elegantly sculpted its themes from Fidelio. The audience was particularly attentive as dynamic levels became more tranquil and nuanced.

As Muti turned to open the Beethoven Fifth Symphony with its familiar four-note theme, the audience clapped wildly in recognition. Muti stopped and turned around and addressed the crowd looking very serious but with tongue clearly in cheek: “You know, this is a very difficult beginning!” The audience howled in laughter. “You weren’t satisfied? We will try again for you!”

The second time the piece continued uninterrupted, with the horn section sounding more confident than it has in recent seasons (lacking a permanent principal). And after many years away, the opportunity to hear newly returned Alex Klein perform the oboe cadenza again was a magical moment. The buildup and tension of that first movement was unusually momentous, and the audience roared its approval, with Muti making no motion to contain the excitement.

The second movement was bouncy yet tranquil, the fastest of Muti’s Chicago performances of the Fifth to date. As if to communicate that the audience liked the quieter movement as much as the opening, applause also crowned it.

The final two movements played out much as the operatic narrative that Muti likes to bring forth: a triumphant theme hinted at, with increasing energy and dynamics until it blazes forth, fully controlled.

Over the years Muti has come to view Beethoven not so much as the precursor of everything that is Romantic, as much as the expansion and breaking up of Classicism. It is remarkable the way he takes this familiar music and emphasizes its Classical structure. Beethoven’s departures really stand out as unexpected, even avant garde.

After several frenzied curtain calls, Muti motioned for the crowd to sit. “We come to you with a message of freedom, liberty and brotherhood: all the good feelings that are, little by little, disappearing. The first thing cut is always education, the basic element to have a better society.” The audience applauds. “The first thing a dictator does is to cut out anything cultivated.”

“We come to you, but we would be very happy to see you in our concert hall. Come. We will make rehearsals available to you so you can see what sacrifice these musicians make putting up with nonsense of conductors. Let’s be a family. On opening night—especially in Italy—the politicians, the models come to be seen, then they disappear. We feel your presence here tonight. You make us perform better. “All the best. Ciao, ciao,” he says.  And with a wave, he departs.

Dennis Polkow

Leave a Comment