Muti: Pandemic Year Silenced Culture, Leaving World Stunned

RAVENNA, Italy — Conducor Riccardo Muti has once again reopened the Italian musical season in his adopted hometown of Ravenna after another — and if all goes well perhaps final — round of pandemic closures. 

With a purposeful nod and flick of his baton, the 79-year-old on Sunday ended what has been an unexpectedly long silence in Italian theaters, enrapturing a socially distanced and masked audience with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's first live performances since the fall — two evening concerts of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. 

The concerts launched a three-stop Italian tour by the Vienna Philharmonic to celebrate 50 years of ties with the conductor and served as a precursor to the summertime Ravenna Festival, this year celebrating the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. 

"The emotion is above all one of rebirth, which is a positive word, but it means that something died before. So, within the positivity, there is the regret over something lost. And we, for a year, lost the possibility of life, in the complete sense of the word," Muti told The Associated Press before the concert. 

"This fact, that in nearly the whole world, theaters have remained empty, orchestras were reduced to silence, is something that has never been seen before."

During this year, Muti has been unable to return to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he has been musical director for a decade. His last European performance, the traditional Vienna New Year's Day concert, was a triumph but was performed to an empty concert hall. In his closing remarks, he urged governments to fund culture, as a salve to mental health that suffered during the pandemic closures. "Music helps," he said. 

Just a little over a year ago, Muti reopened the European musical season after Italy's draconian spring 2020 lockdown with an outdoor concert of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra he founded. Then, the hope was that the summer music festivals would flow smoothly into the fall concert calendar, and cultural life would resume. The fall virus spike and variants doomed that trajectory. Musicians around the world have been deprived of playing for an audience, not to mention income, and audiences the comfort of a live performance.

Muti called the experience of the past year "an unnatural global experiment" that had "stunned" the world.

"If we truly took into account how we are living, we would all go crazy. We try to maintain the illusion that we are living a normal life. It is the only way to reach the end of this absurd path,'' he said. 

Muti is plunging back into concert life. He is conducting his much curtailed 50th anniversary tour with the Vienna Philharmonic in Florence on Monday and at Milan's La Scala on Tuesday, before returning to Ravenna to prepare for festival appearances of his Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and for the debut of a piece of music written for the Dante anniversary based on the Divine Comedy's Purgatory canticle. 

He hopes to be back in Chicago by the fall. 

With a regime of daily virus testing, the Vienna Philharmonic played without masks, spaced at least a meter a part. The audience was spread out across the four tiers of balconies, and every other row was removed from the floor seats, with government rules limiting seating in the 800-seat theater to 250 people. 

In between the shows, orchestra members in their stage garb wandered over to see Dante's tomb across the street, or to sit at an outdoor café next to the Alighieri Theater. 

"Starting again to make music means starting to live again. Starting to live again means starting to be together again,'' Muti said. "What has not been able to happen for a year, has been a real tragedy."


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