Learning from Muti

Maestro Muti with colleagues from the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional at Bellas Artes. 

Maestro Muti doesn’t think the conducting profession should exist. A lot of times conductors “get in the way” of the music. Evoking the words of Von Karajan, he said: “Only when conductors let the orchestra conduct
their conductor, then he has really mastered the art of leading.” I was sitting in the front row at Mexico City’s sumptuous Palacio de Bellas Artes, being a student of Muti, basking in every ounce of wisdom from the legendary Maestro. 

As he led us in a lecture and reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41—filled with anecdotes and beautiful gestures—he would often stop the orchestra and turn to us:  Dear ragazzi “Your arms are an extension of your minds,” everything should be done musically. “Anyone can beat in four, but have you really come to know Mozart, in a metaphysical way?” he asked.   “Every sound should be uniform,” “shape everything,” and “no accents in Mozart!”

Maestro Muti loves opera, on and off the podium. He spoke an elegant and brightly articulated Italian, interspersed with some English and Spanish. He is a masterful storyteller, and has no quarrels about poking fun at himself. Point to his conductor hair or caricaturize his own conducting. But when the music begins, it is all business. His connection to the Mozart score was deeply rooted in that sort of dramatic operatic flair.

As he demonstrated dynamics, it was only fitting that he would point to Verdi and his trailblazing expressionism in music. “You know, he would write in triple or quadruple piano, extending dynamics to their fullest extent.” And his Mozart had that kind of approach: dramatic contrasts, forward-moving lines, and a sense of story.

“We are in E-flat know, what is Mozart doing here?” referring to the irony of having legato woodwinds leading us into a sugary theme.  “E-flat is triumphant, are there any works that you can think that follow the trend?” The Rhenish, the Eroica, we said. “Yes, the Eroica!” That same bit of sugary music leads us into a raucous development. And now the maestro cannot contain the excitement, conducting with an obvious fiery approach. You could see him smile throughout. “Mozart is also showing us the future,” he said. As he led the recapitulation, the sound was much brighter. He didn’t seem to have been doing anything different. “It’s the psychology of it,” he would remark. Thinking and then doing, or inquiring and then requiring the kind of sound you’ve envisioned is the practical solution. As we finished our class, he thanked everyone and came out with many new friends. 

That morning, Maestro Muti gave us a powerful lesson in conducting. But his most remarkable contribution went above and beyond the music. Very few times, had I seen such a multitude of student and professional conductors come together as fellows in music. I saw some very highly regarded national conductors with scores in hand eager to learn and students with a hunger to absorb as much as possible from the Maestro, “hope some of that magic will rub off,” some said. The sense of camaraderie that emerged afterwards was palpable. I made new friends and reconnected with colleagues I had not seen in a few years. This was all part of the experience. Perhaps, this is exactly what music can and will do. Bring people together in the most extraordinary ways. Grazie mille Maestro. 

Standing in front of Palacio de Bellas Artes this week. 

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