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Window to the Truth

Riccardo Muti's musical evangelism takes him to some unexpected places.
By Mark Thomas Ketterson 

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Riccardo Muti and Joyce DiDonato at Illinois Youth Center in Chicago, 2016
© Todd Rosenberg Photography
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“THIS IS A MAN WHO CAN GO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD,” booms a corrections official, “and he chooses to come here.” 

The man in question is Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The “here” is the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois, a juvenile-detention facility some thirty miles outside Chicago. Muti has traveled to Warrenville with several CSO musicians and three members of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center—soprano Diana Newman, contralto Lauren Decker and tenor Mario Rojas. Their appearance is presented by CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, which brings music to underserved populations through a variety of creative initiatives. An entrée to Warrenville was made possible by partnering with Storycatchers Theatre, a Chicago performance group that collaborates with inmates to create an original musical based on their own experiences.

Muti raised a few eyebrows in his first CSO press conference by announcing that providing music for detainees in correctional facilities would be a priority of his administration. “My first experience visiting prisons was in Italy,” Maestro Muti says. “At that time, I was music director at La Scala. Outside Milano there is a huge prison for adults. It happened that one of the prisoners said, ‘I would like to write to Maestro Muti to see if he is interested in visiting us.’ I was told that all the inmates laughed at him. I was moved by this prisoner who wanted music. We agreed on a date. They sent the penitentiary police car! It felt strange for people to see me in the penitentiary car.” Muti laughs. “They didn’t know I was going to bring music—maybe they thought the car was bringing me

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Muti, Diana Newman and Mario Rojas, IYC Warrenville, 2017
© Rodd Rosenberg Photography

“We had about 200 people. I played Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven. I asked which piece they liked more. The majority said Clair de Lune, the most delicate piece. Of course, the hero of the evening was the man who had written the letter. This was for me a fantastic experience. So, when I arrived in Chicago, I began to think, ‘The music director of the Chicago Symphony is not just somebody to make concerts for the 3,000 people you have every night, but to bring music to parts of society that don’t come, for economic or cultural reasons.’”

During the visits, the adrenaline level of the Ryan Center vocalists is palpable, and no wonder. An opportunity to perform with Riccardo Muti is a heady experience, and not a little intimidating. Decker puts it bluntly: “It’s like singing for Verdi.” But the response of Warrenville’s young residents is ineffably moving, as the musicians share their craft “without arrogance,” as Muti describes his approach. “He invites you to understand,” says Newman, after Muti has coached her through an exquisite reading of “Oh! quante volte,” from Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi. Nobody claims that these visits reduce institutional recidivism, but there are reports of decreased conflict afterward. “Music makes a miracle,” Muti says with a smile.

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Muti at IYC Warrenville, 2014
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

“For many, the concert hall is a temple that is only possible for elites with special understanding,” he adds. “But the expert in music does not exist. I can analyze the architecture of the score. But what is behind the notes—that is the universe. So, I say, ‘Don’t be afraid. We speak a language everybody can understand. Maybe you are more ready to receive those emotions than the expert will ever receive. The problem in the world is words. Politicians use words. Music communicates without words. Music doesn’t lie.’

“You are not in an ivory tower going, ‘I conduct Brahms, Beethoven, I, I, I!’” Muti continues. “It becomes you. It gives more sense to our profession. You can look into their eyes, and eyes are the window to the truth. Nobody has the truth in their pocket—what Mozart calls ‘die Wahrheit.’ But together we hold something divine—truth with a capital T. That gives confidence to the kids, that the person with a famous name can testify he does not own the truth but is part of a society in which they are also a part. They matter. If this is successful with people who are in trouble, perhaps governments will think that, finally, if we start with music and culture from elementary school, we would have a better society.

“I don’t have many years in front of me,” Muti muses, with a penetrating gaze. “At my age, I don’t go onstage because I want to measure the applause. I don’t care anymore about this. More and more I would like to be remembered not as the famous conductor, but as someone who did something for society. This is how I want to be remembered in Chicago.” spacer 

Mark Thomas Ketterson has written for Playbill, The Chicago Tribune and various arts organizations. 

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