Assessing The Long Arc Of Muti's Tenure In Philadelphia With Unflagging Energy, He Strove For Discovery And Stylistic Flexibility.

Posted: May 03, 1992

Accustomed to continuity and long relationships, Philadelphia Orchestra listeners are confronting the end of their years with music director Riccardo

Muti and the distant arrival of his successor, Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Muti has conducted his final concerts here as music director, will close the New York season tomorrow at Carnegie Hall and then will lead the orchestra on a ceremonial three-week progress through Europe to Israel. Having laid aside the robes of office here, he will pull on those of the music director of La Scala on Tuesday in New York when he announces that company's tour of America in October, a tour that will include a performance of Verdi's Messa da Requiem at the Academy of Music here.

The long arc of Muti's Philadelphia era - 20 years from debut to farewell - enclosed periods of discovery, renovation, building and, finally, of letting go. There was never a flagging of energy or determination, and in Muti's last rehearsal at the academy, he gave a valedictory in which he urged the orchestra to hold ranks and maintain standards in next season's interim between music directors. That, he said, would reflect the group's pride in the achievements it had made during his 12 years as music director.

He had given the board of directors another kind of valedictory a week before. He told the directors bluntly that unless a major investment in facilities was made soon, the orchestra would drop out of the fierce international competition for record and television audiences and into the ranks of the provincial. In Europe, he records in Milan, Vienna and Berlin, where CDs, videocassettes and laser discs are already the norm. He had voiced his warning frequently in the last year, conjuring an image of Philadelphia Orchestra members sitting at home at night sometime in the future watching the Berlin Philharmonic on television.

His warning to the board was all the more remarkable in that he had never been asked to speak on long-range policy - or to speak at all - to the full board during his tenure. The separation of artistic and business sides of the orchestra, generally a healthy policy, has generated mixed signals here; these have distorted the orchestra's image through the long and inconclusive effort to build a new concert hall.

Both farewell addresses showed how strong Muti's involvement with the orchestra has remained. Critics have called him an absentee landlord, an uncaring visitor, but when he says "my orchestra, and this will always, in my heart, be my orchestra," he is articulating a dedication that his players feel. Nevertheless, he was often seen by listeners as an outsider - an exotic one, at that, who, in having to learn the intricacies of American-style funding for his orchestra and the need for making personal pleas for money, may have slowed his own crusade for a new hall.

Believing that his role was purely artistic, he was distant from the genteel battle for funds that the orchestra waged, unsuccessfully, with those who had to decide between endowing the Art Museum or helping to build a new concert hall. The museum outmaneuvered the orchestra and won the gifts.

Realizing that the hall was not being promoted as a city need, but only as an orchestra need, Muti became more public in urging the hall. But then, the community decided he wanted a hall for himself. After he announced his resignation, he worked harder to gain support for the hall, noting ironically, ''Now they can't say I want this for myself."

The project is still pending. Certain at first that it could build its own hall, the orchestra's management scorned a plan to turn South Broad Street in Center City into an "Avenue of the Arts," and also scorned a projected arts development over the 30th Street Station rail yards because under the terms of both proposals, the orchestra would have been a tenant in a hall. Now, the project seems to depend again on the skills of the expanded group planning an Avenue of the Arts concept, and the orchestra is glad at the prospect of being a tenant in some kind of hall.

Management found it lacked the clout to construct its own building without alliances with government, business and major private sources. It was a disappointment to Muti - an element in his decision to leave - and a setback for the city. Also, without more performing space, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet will not have the chance to grow within their own theater - the academy's projected role when another theater is built.

However dominant the hall had become in talk about the orchestra, it was not the point of Muti's era. The hall may stand as an idea badly presented and a symptom of a city reluctant to break with the past in order to secure a future. It may also make Muti's time here seem like a meteor through the sky - brilliant, fleeting - but still a distant passage in space.

This perception would not be valid. Muti has had concrete and lasting effects on the orchestra and its audiences. The institution had aged and wandered when he became principal guest conductor, moving toward the chaotic by 1980. Players worked crosswords, joked and savored girlie magazines onstage in rehearsals in those days.

Muti's final rehearsals here last week provided strong contrast. He was taking the orchestra through Rossini's Stabat Mater, a work that was, unaccountably, new to the ensemble. The mood light, he warned that in this music the bridge between burlesque and sublimity is the width of a fingernail. Then he brought the baton down to elicit focused playing that grew and inflected with the unspoken language players and conductor share. It was also fast - a subtle way of involving everybody instantly. On the podium, Muti was teacher, explorer, psychologist, standard bearer. For an outgoing music director, the music stayed on the side of sublimity.

The spirit of the orchestra is a tangible expression of the relation between the conductor and the players. For Muti, developing stylistic flexibility is more important than the orchestra's sound. He inherited an orchestra known for its sound, but he dismissed that as a public- relations device and asked, instead, for an orchestra able to play a wide range of music in the voice apt for each musical genre.

Muti's aim was to return music of the classical period to the repertoire, and any history of the Muti era will record the performances of Haydn's Seven Last Words for string orchestra in 1982 as an early sign that the orchestra had reached an extraordinary level in unfamiliar music.

By introducing the orchestra to opera, beginning that same season, Muti was showing his passion for theater, but also using this music as a means of developing lyricism. The idea met strong opposition in and out of the orchestra, but the performances of opera, in almost every succeeding season, became the identifying symbol of each.

Sawallisch, waiting in the wings, has already said he will continue the opera tradition here, but substituting Strauss for Verdi, and mounting Haydn and Britten choral works instead of Italian sacred music.

The pity of Muti's operatic performances is that the works were not recorded, until the final two. The opening Verdi Macbeth, Gluck's Orfeo, Verdi's Nabucco and Rigoletto, and Wagner's Der fliegende Hollander introduced significant singers and music, but Muti had led recordings of most of those works in the 1970s with London's Philharmonia.

To complaints that he felt Verdi to be as great as Beethoven, Muti said he was widening the orchestra's vision and playing range - at the same time he was revealing the level of his passion for opera. Audiences who saw him regularly knew that he turned up the temperature in opera in ways that exceeded even his high energy approach to the symphonic repertoire.

After he took the directorship of La Scala in 1985, discerning fans could predict the end of his time in Philadelphia. The national thrill that runs through Italy on the Dec. 7 opening of the La Scala season is hard to match anywhere else on Earth. La Scala is the focus of international debate and controversy, and as technology has flexed to allow live recordings with video and CD formats, the theater pushed to the front of his attention.

Responsibility for producing opera in a major house leaves less and less time to study orchestral scores and plan long symphonic seasons. Fax messages

from Milan flooded the orchestra offices here, adding a third shift to Muti's workday, and contributing to his decision to leave Philadelphia this year.

But those were elements. Muti has had a firm life-plan, often explained, that included his departure from Philadelphia, a set of opera productions in Italy that will include a Wagner Ring Cycle and a Monteverdi group in smaller theaters. Then in the mid-1990s, he plans to produce opera by the Neapolitan composers whose works, he says, "sleep in the library of the Conservatory." He will stage Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Paisiello, and Porpora. Then, he says, he might teach.

His Philadelphia stewardship is not accurately reflected in the records that the orchestra made. EMI recorded him with the Philharmonia, a post he held until 1982. Some of the best works he did here in his early years already had been recorded in London. The lack of a recording place in Philadelphia - the orchestra abandoned the old Met on North Broad Street and moved to Memorial Hall - meant that the recordings changed in sound in the early 80s; international reviews noted increasing bafflement with the recorded sound.

The discography portrays Muti as an explorer in Franco-Russian music. The early Liszt record with the Philadelphians won prizes in Hungary; the Stravinsky recordings won the German Schallplaten Prize for symphonic music.

The Brahms cycle for Philips caught attention for its rhythmic clarity and soaring lyricism; the Beethoven cycle for EMI - the first on CD by an American orchestra - was greeted by respectful reviews which saw it as a kind of landmark. Muti plans a second Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic.

But the real record of his time here is in the revitalization of the idea of symphonic music. He became its symbol, and willy-nilly, suffered the ongoing attention of listeners who confuse his presence with the music. The Boston Globe's critic, in Philadelphia to hear Muti's final performances, surveyed his tenure, then mentioned Muti's hair and tailoring.

"I will have come and gone," the maestro says, "and people are still talking about my tailor and my hair. What about the music? What about my orchestra?"

By shortening traditional touring to Washington, Baltimore and Wilmington, he made room for more Philadelphians to hear the orchestra. By opening his

dress rehearsals to students, he brought the orchestra and its process to an audience drawn from all over the city.

"I am proud of the open rehearsals for students," Muti says. "When I came here, every time I wanted to do something, the answer was 'no.' "New music? Why? Students at the dress rehearsals? No! (Former orchestra manager Seymour) Rosen said it would attract people who might damage the building, the instruments, attract people we didn't want in the academy. It took 10 years for the orchestra to be on television. Now people see the orchestra and ask why we had not done that before."

Once, after an open rehearsal, two teenagers went back to his dressing room to speak to him.

"Did you see those two girls who came back to see me after the last rehearsal?" he asked. "They were not musicians, and could not articulate exactly why they had come back, but they had been moved, they were affected by the orchestra. Those are the people I want to reach."

Now, says Muti, "I am proudest of those open rehearsals. To see the hall full of young people who want to be there makes me feel what we do is justified."

When Muti arrived, he spoke of his ambition to mount an international festival of new music. He clung to the idea until it was plain that funding was not going to support it. At that point, he accepted the more conventional way: commissioning new works and reviving 20th-century works that had vanished after a few performances.

After conceding that he knew little of American music, he amassed a record of performance and commissioning that brought attention to the orchestra from a sector that had always felt estranged.

Installing first Richard Wernick and then Bernard Rands as composers in residence, he relied on their advice to bring programs into this century. During 1986, the year of the commissioning program honoring the bicentennial of the Constitution, the orchestra won, for the first time, the Symphony Orchestra League's award for programming new American music. It had never before come close.

On the threshhold, Muti's worries are about the orchestra's momentum and standards in the interim season. Whether his valedictories to the players and the board and management will be taken to heart will be seen next season and through the Sawallisch era.

Muti's legacy - energy, wider horizons, flexibility, innovation and a sense of music's seriousness - could be bases for the orchestra's route into the next century. Sawallisch's first words have suggested that he will build on that. He will have to find replacements for several front-desk players who are retiring just as he arrives at the 1993-94 season, and he has plans to solve some of the recording-hall impasse by taking the orchestra to Japan to record and perform.

That is a start in shaping the orchestra to his image. From the synthesis of those images will emerge the Philadelphia Orchestra of the next century.

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