Over the past few months, Charlie Rose interviewed three of the greatest conductors in the world today, and then made the mistake of putting all three on the same program. Riccardo Muti was followed by Gustavo Dudamel, for whom English is still very much a secondary language, and then Valery Gergiev, who could not organize his thoughts in any cohesive manner.
Charlie Rose has the irritating habit of interrupting his guests while they are speaking, and he did this with Dudamel and Gergiev, in the latter case, perhaps to help him get to the point.
When Rose interviewed Dudamel, I soon lost interest and walked the dogs. During Gergiev's bit, I made myself a snack. But when Muti was speaking, Rose was mum. And rightly so, for Muti's candor was astonishing.
When a sports analogy came up, Rose very adroitly steered Muti to the question: Who are the greatest three orchestras in the world today? Muti offered Vienna, Berlin and . . . Chicago, a self-serving choice, given his current tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony. But who would disagree, really? Even when Rose wondered if the New York Philharmonic should be in the mix, Muti didn't bite. And with that, Muti may have severed his relationship with the venerable ensemble.
It wasn't always this way. The players in New York have made no secret of their love for Muti. While searching for a successor to Lorin Maazel, they pined for the Italian maestro. But after having been a music director most of his life, Muti needed a break, so he passed. New York selected Alan Gilbert, who has proven to be a propitious choice, with his fine conducting and brilliant programming. Still, it must have smarted a bit for Gilbert when, after Chicago selected Muti, several players in New York asked, "why couldn't we get him?" For Muti, it was all about alchemy: the players may have loved him, but he wasn't feeling the love for them. He went on to suggest that great orchestras are only truly great when there is a great conductor standing before them. Muti was not being immodest. He's great, and he knows it.
The Philharmonic leadership did not understand that even the greatest conductors in the world need to be coddled and cajoled. Speaking to Rose, Muti explained how for his concerts in Paris, La Scala, Vienna and Berlin, Deborah Rutter kept showing up. (Rutter is the President of the Chicago Symphony.) Her persistence made a great impression on Muti, who eventually accepted an invitation to conduct in Chicago after a long absence. Muti's preparation for the first rehearsal suggests a bit of the jitters, as he recounted how he would introduce himself. Clearly, he needn't have worried, for the chemistry was perfect from the start. After his appointment, some early cancellations due to illness brought about comparisons to Boston Symphony and James Levine, but things have since settled into a graceful rhythm.
To the claim that he has an authoritarian style, he suggested the accusation might be a cultural difference. When a London Philharmonia player complained about the way he said "no," Muti understood that his Italianate manner -- curt, to the point -- is very different from that of an English conductor ("noooooo," with an upward lilt at the end, suggesting that there could be wiggle room for a compromise, even if the answer still was no).
Gergiev is the greatest conductor in the world today, and those who would disagree with me believe that Dudamel holds that distinction. When I saw him conduct the complete Firebird ballet (without score) with the San Francisco Symphony a few years ago, Deborah Borda, President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sat next to me, beaming during the entire concert like a proud mother. Bringing Dudamel to Los Angeles was the baseball equivalent of stealing home; she did it while no one else was looking. The announcement came while Dudamel was an overwhelmingly popular guest with the Chicago Symphony, prompting the players to wonder why they hadn't gotten there sooner.
No matter. They got Muti. Even before my lesson with him years ago, I knew how great he was. During a conducting workshop with the Curtis Institute Orchestra in Philadelphia, I was struggling with Verdi's i vespri siciliani (Sicilian Vespers), and after explaining a few things to me, he snatched away my baton and led the orchestra in a manner that was nothing short of astonishing. After he was done, the room broke out in spontaneous applause.