Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti works with the young conductor Chiya Amos in Tokyo | Credit: Satoshi Aoyagi/Spring Festival in Tokyo

At age 80, Riccardo Muti has just extended his contract to lead the Chicago Symphony through the 2022–2023 season, still earning an estimated $3.5 million there annually. More about that later, but in what other profession do octogenarians maintain such high-level employment?

Orchestra conductors appear to live longer than people in any other profession. Famous conductors of the past, then in an era when life expectancy was around 50 years, lived well into their 80s and 90s — Leopold Stokowski 95, Pablo Casals 96, Nadia Boulanger 90, and Arturo Toscanini 89, to name a few. The phenomenon has long been studied and marvelled at.

Leopold Stokowski
Leopold Stokowski went beyond his Fantasia fame and continued to conduct major orchestras until his death at 95.

Looking around just locally, the San Francisco Symphony’s music directors of recent years lead the way, with a remarkable lineup:

— Seiji Ozawa, 86 (born Sept. 1, 1935); 1970–1976 with SF Symphony
— Edo de Waart, 80 (June 1, 1941); 1977–1985
Herbert Blomstedt, 94 (July 11, 1927); 1985–1995
— Michael Tilson Thomas, 76 (Dec. 21, 1944); 1995 – 2020

[Also, San Francisco resident and former longtime Berkeley Symphony music director Kent Nagano, a youthful 69 (Nov. 22, 1951).

Herbert Blomstedt
World’s oldest busy conductor: Herbert Blomstedt, 94 | Credit: Barbara Frommann/BeethovenFest 2021

MTT has dealt successfully with recent health challenges, first a heart operation in 2019, then just two months ago, removal of a brain tumor. No news about him has been released since the Aug. 6 announcement of the operation, but his website has a recent tweet about his performances with the London Symphony. He plans to return to San Francisco to conduct in November.

Ed Simons held the title of world’s oldest active conductor until his death in 2018 at age 101. Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) still conducted at age 95. Some of the current oldtimers:

Christoph von Dohnányi, 92
Richard Bonynge, 90
Roger Norrington, 87
Zubin Mehta, 85
Charles Dutoit, 84
Neeme Järvi, 84
Yuri Temirkanov, 82
Marek Janowski, 81
Lothar Zagrosek, 79
Daniel Barenboim, 78
Dennis Russell Davies, 77
Andrew Davis, 77
Leonard Slatkin, 77
Joseph Resigno, 76 (next week)
Christoph Perick, 75

As to Muti, his contract as Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony is extended to 2023, instead of concluding, as scheduled, at the end of the current season.

According to the announcement, “in light of the many months of canceled performances since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muti has agreed to the Association’s request to remain as music director through the 2022–2023 season. During this period, he will maintain his current commitment to lead the orchestra in 10 weeks of subscription and special concerts and community activities in Chicago, as well as four weeks of international and domestic touring activities.”

Highlights of Muti’s programs with the CSO in the 2022-2023 season will include the world premiere of a CSO-commissioned work by Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery, June 2023 performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and a roster of international soloists, and a January 2023 Asia Tour to Taiwan, China, and Japan.

In addition to a tremendous list of musical triumphs — with Maggio Musicale in Florence, Philharmonia Orchestra in London, Philadelphia Orchestra, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and Salzburg Whitsun Festival — Muti is also a true mensch, siding with the musicians in the Chicago Symphony strike (almost no music director does that), protesting the Met’s treatment of musicians, and speaking to power about the importance of arts. He’s been uncompromising, outspoken, never reluctant to speak and act for what he believes.

Riccardo Muti
CSO Music Director Riccardo Riccardo Muti joins striking musicians outside Orchestra Hall in 2019 | Credit: Antonio Perez/Associated Press

Muti made his debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1973 at the Ravinia Festival. In 2007, after an absence of more than 34 years, he led the orchestra in a month-long residency of subscription concerts and a critically heralded European tour, including the CSO’s first appearances in Italy in more than 25 years. Muti’s appointment as the CSO’s 10th music director was announced in 2008. He appeared with the orchestra several times as music director designate beginning in January 2009 and officially stepped into his role as music director on Sept. 19, 2010, leading the CSO in a concert which attracted 25,000 people to the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Muti’s response to the contract extension:

“I look forward to being in Chicago again with the musicians to bring music back into the city. I am very proud of the musicians of this great orchestra and happy to stay as music director to continue our great artistic collaboration, and to work with our trustees, volunteers and administration to keep music an important part of our community and a beacon of hope around the world.”

CSO horn James Smelser, chair of the Members’ Committee, welcomed the news: “Besides Maestro Muti’s wonderful return to Chicago, the first since February of 2020, there can be no greater joy than to share in this news. The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recognize this important step in the continuation of a significant musical collaboration that can be shared with audiences in Chicago and throughout the world. We are extremely proud to have Maestro Muti as our music director.”

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