The Trials of Rattle and Muti

by Sedgwick Clark

A couple of Musical America’s former Musicians of the Year took a drubbing last week. Rebecca Schmid, MA’s Berlin correspondent, reported on our Web site (1/11) that Simon Rattle (2002) announced he would not renew his Berlin Philharmonic contract as music director in 2018 after 16 years. She wrote that “Rattle’s popularity within the orchestra . . . and with the German public is mixed. The conductor’s artistic direction . . . has taken the orchestra far afield from Brahms and Beethoven . . . .”

Well, the self-governing BPO asked for it. When it signed Rattle, it pointedly stated its desire for a conductor who would lead it into 21st-century music and also teach it the joys of authentic period music-making. The British conductor’s biographer, Nicholas Kenyon, laid out the possible pitfalls clearly in his Musician of the Year tribute to Rattle in the 2002 Directory, calling his succession to Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, and Wilhelm Furtwängler “a daring risk and a massive leap of faith.” Man, was he right! You can read Nick’s insightful tribute by clicking “MORE” and “archives” on the Web site desktop.

Rattle’s detractors didn’t take long to materialize, reported Anthony Tommasini in the Times on November 16, 2007, disdaining the contemporary music and bemoaning the reduction of the German classics. My guess is that orchestra and audience also became no less disenchanted with Rattle’s wayward performances of the basic repertory. Several years ago he led the BPO at Carnegie in the most aimless Beethoven Pastoral I’ve ever heard; in the same hall on May 17 he’ll have another go at the symphony with the Philadelphians. Perhaps I’ll check to see if either of us has changed. At any rate, I’ll want to hear the concert’s first half of works by Webern, Berg, and Ligeti.

A lot can happen in the next five years, but I’ll bet that some youngish German conductor committed to tradition, like Christian Thielemann (if he can keep his questionable political notions to himself), will ascend to the BPO throne. Rebecca suggested Daniel Barenboim as a possibility, but he’ll be 75 by Rattle’s final season, and the Boston Symphony’s experience with James Levine’s health has undoubtedly given orchestras the jitters.

Which may be occurring at the Chicago Symphony right now. Its choice of Riccardo Muti (MA’s 2010 Musician of the Year), who became music director in fall 2010, seemed a match made in heaven. But he missed most of his first season due to what his doctor called extreme exhaustion and later fell off the podium, fracturing his jaw. He now has a pacemaker.

Muti’s latest malady is a bout of the worldwide flu epidemic, which caused him to cancel two weeks of concerts prior to the CSO’s Asian tour at the end of this month through early February. He has reportedly recovered in time to lead the tour, with Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony replacing works by Stravinsky and Busoni.  Still, once again a Muti health problem undoubtedly disappointed thousands of hometown subscribers and scared the bejesus out of the administrators.

Joyce Is Maria

I like to think I’m open to new discoveries, and my second brush with Donizetti appears to be one of them. On the heels of the Met’s old production of L’Elisir d’amore (I loved the deliciously sorbet sets so much on its closing night that I’m afraid to venture to the new one), comes the company’s first Maria Stuarda. Donizetti wrote two of the most heart-breaking arias in the repertory for his title character, and Musical America’s 2013 Vocalist of the year, Joyce DiDonato, sang them exquisitely. I’ll go to hear her sing anything.

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