"I have felt under a great deal of pressure and stress in my life. It is time for me, who have been taking care of musicians for more than 20 years, to take care of myself, to find myself - not that I am lost - to think, to read, to have a life. There is no real reason, you see, only my personal reason.
"Last year, I began to feel that this job is too hard, too much to do. I felt like a man without air. Conductors do not have a normal life, but for me, it was jet lag, jet lag, and I asked how long I could do it."
Muti first conducted the orchestra in March 1972. He was named chief guest conductor in 1977 and music director in 1980, succeeding Eugene Ormandy, who had held the position for 44 years and who had made Muti his protege.
Members of the orchestra's board of directors were notified of Muti's decision at the same time that he was speaking to the players. Board president Theodore A. Burtis said, "We heard this with shock and deep regret, but with deep understanding, too. We will have had 20 years of Maestro Muti's talent and leadership, and we are grateful for that. The orchestra necessarily changes, however, and we will go on. We do want to maintain our relation with the maestro, and we have asked him to accept the title of conductor laureate."
Muti looked pale and drained when he spoke to reporters.
"This decision was very difficult for me," he said. "My relationship with the orchestra has been wonderful. In 20 years, there has never been any friction. I think there is a unique rapport between us; music-making has been full of joy. I will not break that relationship. I will come back to conduct, and I will record. I will take the orchestra on tour if they want.
"Because there never was friction and because it has been such joy for me, this decision is especially difficult. It is almost like a forced separation.
"I felt it was unfair to maintain my title and ask for less time. A music director has to be ready to give his best, to provide inspiration always. I respect the orchestra and I respect myself. I didn't want the musicians to say, 'He's not what he was.' I hate the idea of not giving my best, and I was afraid that someday the musicians would look at me and say, 'He wasn't giving his best.' "
Muti said he had announced his decision almost 2 1/2 years early to give the orchestra board time to find a successor. "It is important to give management time to find the best conductor," he said.
He emphasized that he would not be leaving to go to another orchestra, saying, "Where else is there to go?"
He noted that he had begun as music director of the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1968, then had taken the same title with London's Philharmonia in 1972. "After Philadelphia, where could I go?" he reiterated. "I will always feel in my heart that this is my orchestra.
"Even the management at La Scala (the Milan opera house of which he is also music director) did not know I was doing this," he said.
Burtis said the board would form a search committee, composed of members of the board and executive director Joseph H. Kluger. Muti urged that players be represented on the committee as well.
Muti said his wife, Cristina, had called him from Italy, where she and their three children live, to ask if he really wanted to step down. "It was my decision," he stressed.
In the time remaining in his tenure, Muti said, he will fight for construction of an orchestra hall at Broad and Spruce Streets. "Now no one will be able to say that I wanted this hall built for me," he said. "I want it for Philadelphia."
After a pause, he beamed and added, "I still hope I can open the new hall . . . after so many years."
ALWAYS 'GIVEN MY BEST'
"I have always given my best," he said. "But being music director in America is difficult. I have not had a holiday in 20 years. I have not walked on the beach in Marina di Ravenna (where he and his wife have a house) since 1978. I am a man who needs time."
Concertmaster Carol called the news "devastating. The only positive thing I can find in this is that he is not cutting himself off from the orchestra. He has established such a level of excellence here that it may never be surpassed."
He said he felt a personal loss. "He's taught everyone certain musical things that we may all have known once, but he has brought it back to us. You know, it may take something like this to make the city understand what it has had in its midst."
Richard Woodhams, the principal oboist, said he was "shocked and depressed by Muti's decision."
He said, "From a human standpoint, I understand why he is doing this, but I am deeply concerned about the musical life in Philadelphia. He has done so much to upgrade that life.
"I hope he does plan to continue his relationship with the orchestra. He's brought us attention and admiration, and real international respect when we tour. His has been a special kind of music-making. His leaving is a loss."
Violist Irving Segall said, "I can understand his reluctance to continue at his pace musically. I admire him for recognizing that there is more to life than conducting - or playing viola, for that matter. The days of music directors staying 30 or 40 years are gone, but no one anticipated this."