Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and soloists in a performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis | Credit: Todd Rosenberg

One would like to say that Riccardo Muti’s distinguished 13-year run as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director was a transformative one, but really, there wasn’t much to transform. The CSO had been one of the world’s truly great orchestras — some would say the greatest on the North American continent — long before Muti got there.

The now-legendary Hungarian disciplinarian Fritz Reiner is generally credited for vaulting the CSO into the top ranks in the 1950s, and following an interlude with the underrated Jean Martinon, Georg Solti — another Hungarian — turbocharged the orchestra for 22 years. Daniel Barenboim then maintained the high technical standards while softening the sound, and Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink served as inspired caretakers in an interim period while the CSO searched for a major figure to sign on full-time after Barenboim left.

The orchestra found one in Muti, who by 2010 had become a much-coveted grand master of the baton (he had previously turned down offers to head an American orchestra again after leaving Philadelphia in 1992). With the CSO, Muti pursued a middle ground between the brassy power of Solti and the Central European-oriented gravitas of Barenboim, adding an Italianate lyrical feeling and an exacting respect for the score that drew from the example of Arturo Toscanini. The orchestra took to Muti immediately — and so did Chicago. He seems to be regarded with the same adulation that the City of Big Shoulders bestowed on Solti. And Muti has returned that loyalty, endearing himself to the community with run-out concerts outside the Chicago Loop. And when the orchestra’s musicians went on strike in 2019, Muti was there on the street with them.

Concertmaster Robert Chen | Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Now, Muti is 81, and having stayed on beyond his originally scheduled retirement in order to see the CSO through the other end of the pandemic, he finally let go of the reins this month. Which is not to say that Chicago has seen the last of him. On Friday, June 23, he was appointed music director emeritus for life, entrusted with six weeks of programs in Chicago and on tour in 2023–2024 and another four weeks in Chicago and two more weeks on tour in 2024–2025.

So while he is freed from the extramusical responsibilities that go with being music director, Muti remains closely tied to the CSO as management searches for a worthy successor (and good luck finding someone of equivalent stature). Muti chose to go out with a grand statement — three performances June 23–25 of Beethoven’s daunting, voice-busting Missa solemnis and a free outdoor concert in Millennium Park on June 27.

Missa solemnis is a new piece in Muti’s repertoire — or relatively new, for Muti has said that he started studying the work 50 years ago but was so intimidated by its torturously high vocal range and cosmic possibilities that he wouldn’t conduct it for fear of not doing it justice. He would quote Carlos Kleiber, who allegedly said that there is some music that is better if it stays on the paper (which, frankly, says more about Kleiber, a notorious perfectionist, than Beethoven). Muti finally agreed to take on the piece in the 2020–2021 CSO season, but the pandemic scotched that, so Salzburg ultimately heard Muti’s first performance of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in August 2021. Chicago finally got its Missa solemnis on June 23 in Orchestra Hall, the venerable building facing east on Michigan Avenue, overlooking Grant Park, the Art Institute, and Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra | Credit: Todd Rosenberg

The acoustics of Orchestra Hall, which has undergone periodic renovations, remain controversial — some like them, some loathe them. The space, with its unique dome-like shell and steep raking in its upper levels, has a relatively short reverberation time and not much sonic information from the rear. But you don’t notice the shortcomings, for this mighty orchestra’s sound comes flooding at you. The CSO can make any hall sound good, it would seem.

If anything, the CSO sound in Orchestra Hall is now clearer and not quite as dark as I remember from my previous encounters with the ensemble here in 2014. The sound from the superb Chicago Symphony Chorus — under the guest direction of Donald Palumbo for these performances — is bright and massive, better blended upstairs in the balcony than on the orchestra floor during a dress rehearsal, but also prone to a slight bit of distortion when pushed to its highest volume level. The four soloists in Missa solemnis —soprano Erin Morley, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, tenor Giovanni Sala, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen — were placed behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus, with the female voices somewhat dominating when heard together. But the total blend of orchestra, chorus, and solo singers was so fine-tuned that it sounded like a single perfectly balanced organism.

Soloists Erin Morley (soprano), Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano), Giovanni Sala (tenor), and Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone) | Credit: Todd Rosenberg 

From Muti, we heard a vigorous yet always flowing treatment of the Mass, with nothing radically reconceived, as befits a conductor who always considers himself a composer’s advocate (in Erich Leinsdorf’s words). Muti did slow down noticeably as he launched the grand choral fugue in the Gloria, and he always paid scrupulous attention to the softest dynamics. The CSO sailed through the toughest contrapuntal sections with startling clarity, ease, and expertise. The performance stopped a bit short of fervent ecstasy in the shouting climaxes; maybe Muti remains a bit too much in awe of the piece, just stepping back from the brink of really letting go. Yet the overall effect of the performance was still mightily impressive and expressive.

One more endearing thing about Muti: He is an irrepressible public speaker, and he knows it. I can say many things that are too provocative,” he admitted last week during the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. The last time MCANA visited Chicago, in 2014, Muti was scheduled to give a half-hour-or-so talk to the assembled scribes, but he had a lot on his mind that day, and he regaled us for a full 90 minutes. At this year’s meeting, he kept his remarks down to 30 minutes, but they were loaded with autobiographical asides, quips, advice, observations, and other ramblings.

Riccardo Muti, with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association President Jeff Alexander and Board Chair Mary Louise Gorno | Credit: Todd Rosenberg 

After the Missa solemnis performance, Muti was presented with a plaque from the orchestra, and that led to another stream of what he previously and kiddingly called “nonsense.” The CSO “remains in my heart, but they won’t get rid of me,” he proclaimed, going on to hallucinate that when he appears with the orchestra in the future, he might shed the usual concert dress (“Maybe I will go on the podium with short trousers — or yellow hair”). On the Missa solemnis itself: Vocally, this is the most absurd piece ever written.” He went on and on like this for a while, until finally he said, “That’s it!” and left.

He’s a charmer. No wonder Chicago took to him.