Editor: Marc Bridle


Webmaster: Len Mullenger





WWW MusicWeb

Search Music Web with FreeFind

Any Review or Article



Seen and Heard Article


Tantrums or Principles? Assessing the Muti Affair by Bernard Jacobson


So the imbroglio has come to its sorry end, and Riccardo Muti is no longer in charge at La Scala. In the course of a 19-year tenure, he raised the musical standards of the institution beyond recognition, turned the previously lack-luster orchestra into an instrument of high quality, collaborated in some outstanding productions, reasserted the value of tradition, and presided over an architectural make-over that has apparently transformed both the physical resources of the house and its acoustics; and now he has been forced out in the most contentious manner by an alliance of La Scalaís musical staff and other employees.


Much dust needs to settle before we are likely to reach a full understanding of what happened (though it is clear that the firing of general manager Carlo Fontana was the trigger), and before we can arrive at any insight into what happens next either for La Scala or for Muti himself. But in the wake of the more scurrilous articles about the affair perpetrated over the past few weeks by the gutter press, I feel constrained, as someone who worked for Muti as program annotator of the Philadelphia Orchestra between 1984 and 1992, to try to set the record straight in a number of particulars.


A New York Times article by Daniel J. Wakin and James R. Oestreich, which appeared in the paperís 3 April edition just before news of Mutiís resignation came out, was an honorable exception to the tone of Schadenfreude and innuendo that has prevailed. It would be wearisome and pointless to detail all the accusations that have been imaginatively leveled at the conductor. But some of the most disgusting effusions, including one by a man named David Mellor previously unknown to me and one by Norman Lebrecht, whom I have regarded as a friend but would now be ashamed to call such, contain comments that really do demand some discussion. There has also been a diatribe from Franco Zeffirelli, accusing Muti of all manner of artistic and human vices.


I hardly need to speak of these latter charges; it would be amusing, if it were not sadly shocking, to witness a self-indulgent vulgarian of Zeffirelliís stamp passing judgement on an artist of Mutiís integrity, and anyone familiar with the kind of productions Zeffirelli puts on the stage (or sometimes through it, as when he broke the revolve at the new Met in New York by assembling more extras than he had been warned it could accommodate) will know how much credence to lend his outburst. But there are a number of motifs running through the observations of Mellor, Lebrecht, and the other muck-rakers that I do want to address.


One of them is the notion that Muti indulges in tantrums. Now, I was not around the parental home when Muti was a baby. But I have come to know him rather well in the last two decades, and I feel confident in stating that he has never had a tantrum in his adult life. Riccardo Muti controls himself at least as rigorously as those who call him arrogant criticize him for allegedly wanting to control everyone else. What is usually adduced as typically tantric (or should the word be "tantrumious"?) is his withdrawal, a few months ago, from the Royal Opera House of Londonís production of La forza del destino when, at short notice, he learned that the sets brought in from La Scala were being altered. Mr. Lebrecht regarded this as a "maestro huff." From my point of view, it looks more like a characteristic refusal to compromise on matters of artistic principle, and I think the New York Times was right in ascribing Mutiís withdrawal, on the grounds that the production "no longer met Scala standards," also to his loyalty to the director, Hugo de Ana.


It depends, of course, on your attitude to the opposing demands of artistic integrity and circumstantial (read "financial") expediency. It was essentially Carlo Fontanaís efforts to popularize La Scala through the injection of lighter repertoire bordering on crossover that brought him and Muti into conflict. One may reasonably feel that financial viability ought to be among the criteria for the selection of repertoire, but it is no less arguable that artistic compromise leads inevitably to artistic mediocrity, and in setting his face against any step in that direction Muti is not throwing tantrums; he is simply standing on principle.


There is another allegation that, though it may be less strictly relevant to the politics of the recent brouhaha, is closely linked to the tantrum idea. This is the suggestion, which I have seen widely touted, that Muti has somehow taken Arturo Toscanini as his "model," whether in the strictly musical sphere or in the matter of behavior. Certainly Toscanini was notorious for his tantrums. I have never seen Muti behave with anything but the most complete courtesy to musicians. Nor, in his Philadelphia days, did his supposed "aloofness" and "arrogance" prevent his dressing-room from being always open to the members of the orchestra; before a concert, and again at intermission, there was a constant coming and going of players wanting to consult him or to make a suggestion, and there was no trace in his response of anything de haut en bas in his response to such visitors. I have seen him at work in Milan too, and never witnessed anything that would justify Lebrechtís headline reference to "the tyrant at La Scala" or Mellorís to "the monster of Milan."


As to the actual music-making, I know it is possible to find affinities between the two Italian conductors, but "model"? Ė well, I find that unconvincing. I have never discussed the matter with Muti, and so cannot say what he thinks about this idea. But in performances ranging from Beethoven and Berlioz to Brahms and beyond, it has always seemed to me that Mutiís allegiance is not to the letter but to the spirit of the score, in a way that associates him in my mind rather with conductors like Furtwängler than with Toscanini and his ilk. And specifically, one comment of his would seem to support that view. As editor of the Philadelphia program-book in the 1980s, I introduced a section in which selected recordings of the eveningís music were recommended for subsequent listening. When the Brahms First Symphony, Muti, who took a lively interest in the content of the program-book, asked me whether I would be listing the Mengelberg recording, which he described as "the only one really worthy of repeated listening" Ė a view I can hardly imagine any dedicated Toscaninian putting forward.


On the human front, Lebrecht sinks lower still in his description of Muti, obviously intended as an insult, as "A Neapolitan of modest origins." Firstly, it isnít true: Muti comes from a family of high achievement and distinction. And secondly, even if it were true, what bearing could the characterization possibly have on the matter at issue?


No, it seems to me that what we have in all the recent attacks is a perfect illustration of the circumstance that drove the wedge between Muti and the institution he loved and nurtured with such devotion. It is the inability of less principled persons to see beyond such chimeras as Mutiís "tantrums" to the integrity that has unfailingly directed both his conduct and his conducting. "Integrity," after all, is a word decreasingly applicable to either the private or the public sphere in the world of the 21st century. With such inability now evidently established at La Scala, I cannot begin to imagine what can even be hoped for in La Scalaís future. About Muti himself I am more sanguine. His recent return to Philadelphia saw the reestablishment of cordial relations with his wide circle of admirers both among the public and in the orchestra itself. (It was refreshing to see Judy Geist, a Philadelphia Orchestra violist through much of Mutiís tenure, quoted in a Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, "Contrary to what a lot of people think, Muti puts music, La Scala, and all artistic matters before himself".) He has the warmest of relationships with the New York Philharmonic, with concerts scheduled in mid-April and a closer collaboration already announced for the future. He recently returned with triumphant success to another of his own former orchestras, the Philharmonia in London, and continues to be a frequent welcome guest with the Vienna Philharmonic. He can probably write whatever script he wishes for his future. Those who love scandal more than art will continue to carp. The rest of us will be waiting with pleasurable anticipation.

Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page





Error processing SSI file


Error processing SSI file