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Letter from Stockholm

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER travels to the Swedish capital, where Riccardo Muti accepted the prestigious Birgit Nilsson Prize in October.

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Honoree Muti with his award
© Fredrik Stehn 2012
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The conductor with Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf     
© Fredrik Stehn 2012
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Svendén salutes Muti
© Fredrik Stehn 2012

Swedish royalty met opera royalty on October 13, 2011, when H. M. King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the Birgit Nilsson Prize to conductor Riccardo Muti on the stage of the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. At one million dollars, the Nilsson Prize, funded entirely by the legacy of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, is the most generous in the world of classical music. At the press conference and ceremony, the Neapolitan conductor was surprisingly candid and serious. He said the news of his selection by an international jury had been unexpected and confessed to being moved not by the amount of money — "that would be extremely vulgar," he quipped with his whimsical smile — but by the name attached to the prize. 

Praising Nilsson's voice, artistry and dignity, Muti said in his acceptance speech that he regretted never having had the chance to make music with her and said he vividly recalled traveling from Florence to Rome in 1970 to hear her in a concert performance of Fidelio conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The concert was scheduled to be broadcast, but the young conductor wanted to hear this phenomenal voice live, and the impression it made on him remains to this day. "We do not have this kind of singer anymore," he added gravely, asking that his remark not be perceived as too negative, because there are excellent singers today. But for him and for the audience he was addressing, Nilsson was an exceptional artist — hardworking, insightful and faithful to the intentions of the composer. Muti likes to say that he belongs to the old school, and in his speech he clearly stood up for tradition, praising honesty, integrity and ethics as elements essential to professional music-making while condemning the fast-paced world of today, in which singers often pick the wrong roles and rehearsal times are shrinking. He insisted that artistic achievement could be reached only through hard work, recalling the long years he spent studying violin and piano, in addition to ten years of composition studies, before engaging in a career as a conductor. "I want to ask the young conductors of today, engaging so early in a professional career — when did you start studying seriously?" 

The contrast between the laudation addressed to him by Birgitta Svendén, general manager of the Royal Swedish Opera, and Muti's sober response, delivered with his characteristic grace and refinement, was striking. While it was his outstanding qualities as a conductor that were being celebrated, he suggested nonetheless that the rich and prestigious honor, which has been presented only once before, was not linked solely to the quality of his artistic endeavors. He preferred to see it as a tribute to his social and civic involvement through music. 

The first recipient of the prize, Plácido Domingo, had been selected by Birgit Nilsson herself before her death in December 2005, clearly setting a high standard for the next candidate. Active as both singer and conductor, Domingo, who received his award in 2009, is particularly apt at reaching out to a wide audience while maintaining a high level of artistry. He is also an arts administrator and the founder of the Operalia singing competition to which, he promptly announced at the time of the first ceremony, all the prize money would be dedicated. Birgit Nilsson had set an example in creating not only this prize but, in the late 1980s, a rich scholarship fund that helped launch careers of such artists as Ben Heppner, Alan Held, Earle Patriarco and Christine Goerke. Quite fittingly, on October 13, the winner of the 2010 Birgit Nilsson scholarship, soprano Paulina Pfeiffer, was invited to sing at the gala dinner following the award ceremony.

After Nilsson's death, it was left to the foundation she had created to administer her legacy and oversee the selection of a new recipient every two or three years. The criteria were exacting: the singer, conductor or institution selected should be currently active in the field of opera or concert performance — including oratorio or lieder for singers — and demonstrate an outstanding level of artistic achievement. Under the stewardship of Dr. Rutbert Reisch, president of the foundation and an old personal friend of Birgit Nilsson, the members of the panel were invited to submit a list of candidates. They came — "quickly and unanimously," according to Dr. Reisch — to a consensus. Nominated for a three-year mandate, the panel included Clemens Hellsberg, president of the Vienna Philharmonic; Eva Wagner-Pasquier, codirector of the Bayreuth Festival; Bengt Hall, managing director of the Malmö Opera and former general manager of the Royal Swedish Opera; Rupert Christiansen, opera critic of the Daily Telegraph; and Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. It was a decision of the foundation, said Dr. Reisch, to invite an opera expert from each country where the soprano was most active during her career, and the award ceremony was to take place on the very stage where Nilsson made her debut in 1946, as Agathe in Der Freischütz. A photo exhibit was on display in the lobby of the Royal Swedish Opera during the entire month of October, comprising twelve life-size photographs of the dramatic soprano in various roles she had performed in the house, from Lady Macbeth in 1947 to Brünnhilde in 1981.

The great diva's presence was even more palpable when, during the award ceremony, we were invited to view a riveting concert performance of the last scene of Salome, from a gala in honor of Rudolf Bing, who retired from the Met in 1972. Bing had asked Nilsson to sing this scene, and Karl Böhm was conducting. Almost forty years later, it remains a peerless rendition, and an especially moving one for those who, like Dr. Reisch, had the privilege of witnessing Nilsson onstage in more than 200 performances. "Words won't do her justice," he said after the presentation, "because music doesn't know language barriers. It goes straight into your heart. And then you can only describe it as an emotionally wrenching experience, something that brings tears to your eyes."

For those of us who had never witnessed a live performance of La Nilsson, hearing that voice in a large hall was an unforgettable experience. One can only feel for American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who had to step onstage immediately after the screening and sing Leonora's "Tacea la notte placida," from Il Trovatore, an opera she has performed to great applause in recent years at the Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera. 

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Radvanovsky and Noseda in performance at the ceremony
© Fredrik Stehn 2012

Apart from the Strauss scene, it was, musically, a Verdi night. The Royal Swedish Orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda, performed two excerpts from Nabucco,including "Va, pensiero," for which the ensemble joined forces with the Royal Swedish Opera Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir. This piece has become almost a signature anthem for Muti. Everyone remembered how he had recently made headlines with his address to the audience in Rome before agreeing to repeat the chorus during a performance of Nabucco, asking them to sing along with the choir, in a vibrant political plea for arts funding in Italy. 

Curiously, in this gilded temple of lyrical art, Muti did not mention any of his past accomplishments in the opera genre, either at the press conference or in his acceptance speech. In fact, he made clear in his remarks that he was now finally enjoying some degree of freedom, having decided not to undertake new projects for the stage. He was eager, however, to talk about his enthusiasm for returning to the post of music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and for the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, a cherished project that he founded in 2004. Steering away from the luxurious art form that is opera, the celebrated conductor now prefers instead to visit the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville with members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, bringing the music of Mozart and Bellini to incarcerated and at-risk youth. He talked with enthusiasm and passion of the concerts he has conducted as part of the "Paths of Friendship" project, in association with the Ravenna Festival. Every year, he brings music to people in troubled parts of the world. He described a performance of Beethoven's Eroica and Brahms's Shicksalslied that he conducted in Sarajevo in 1997 for a crowd of ten thousand people who had lost their relatives, their homes, but who wept at this concert "because through music they found dignity again." He recalled with pride how last July, when he took the Cherubini Youth Orchestra to Nairobi, Kenya, a choir of three hundred African children sang with them. "Music does not know borders," he said. "When we all play the same music, everything disappears, and hearts start to beat as one." In repeating the mantra he has held for forty years, he used a telling image: in an orchestral score, all instruments on the page have their individual line. They all play together, but each player knows that his freedom exists and does not infringe on the freedom of others.

Muti's stirring plea for music education is indeed inspiring for any musical audience. But it was surprising for some of the audience at the Royal Swedish Opera house, especially for those of us from North America, to hear him express his concerns about the decline of culture in Europe. "I am worried about the future, because Europe is forgetting the importance of our culture, our tradition, our history," he said. "I take this opportunity from the stage of this prestigious opera house… to send a message that certainly was a message that Birgit Nilsson sent all the years of her musical life — let's help the new generations towards a good future, and one of the weapons is music and culture.… It seems that Europe is losing little by little certain values, and music can help." spacer 

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER is a musicologist and broadcaster. She is an associate professor at Université de Montréal and host and producer of Saturday Opera Broadcasts for Espace Musique, Radio-Canada's music network. 

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