Riccardo Muti's concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic invariably stand out as red-letter dates on the calendar of the Salzburg Festival, so in a sense his epic performance of Sergei Prokofiev's film score for Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible on August 17 was merely business as usual. But as his 200th Salzburg appearance, the occasion called for more than bouquets, cheers, and the obligatory standing ovation. Sure enough, the festival brass trooped onstage en bloc to join the massed forces of the orchestra and the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera in the applause. The deluxe roster of soloists—the Russian opera singers Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov as well as the French superstar Gérard Depardieu, appropriately larger than life in declaiming the speeches of the ferocious hero—likewise joined the general adulation. And for a touch of pageantry, a banner scrolled down from the flies, inscribed with a text that began "Thank you, Riccardo." The "signatories" included not only the institutions represented by personnel on the stage but also every composer whose music he has conducted in Salzburg, from Haydn to Varèse and beyond.
Never one to milk an ovation, Muti eventually gave into pressure to mount the podium for a brief solo bow before gesturing for silence. "Everybody is so happy," he began when the din died down, "because they know that there cannot be 200 more." Then there were words of thanks to the Vienna Philharmonic for a collaboration going back nearly 40 years, the longest and richest association of his professional life. "A violinist or an oboist can practice in private," Muti pointed out. "A conductor must make his mistakes in public." (It would be interesting in retrospect to research what those mistakes might have been. Though his performances today inflect his inexorable control of yesteryear with a new measure of spontaneous fantasy, Muti was never an artist to cut corners.) He spoke of Salzburg as his second home.
On a lighter note, Muti demonstrated how any traffic cop could learn to conduct—at least the 18 minutes of the Andante of Schubert's Symphony No. 8, the "Unfinished." "You just beat in three, and when the musicians stop, you stop," he said. "And if anything goes wrong, just do what conductors do. Look up into the air with a look of mystery." Then he made his getaway. "I've said too much already," he said. "Conductors should never talk."
Backstage, the crush of well-wishers, friends, and associates swarming from every corner of the globe conjured up memories of the stateroom scene in the Marx Bros. classic A Night at the Opera. Lunch followed at the Festival's nearby party space called the Kulisse (meaning "wings," in the theatrical sense), with its picture-postcard view of Salzburg's baroque splendors. As these things go, it was an intimate affair, with just four tables, each set for a dozen guests. Flanking the man of the hour like heraldic divinities were Helga Rabl-Stadler, president of the Salzburg Festival, and Gabi Burgstaller, state president of Salzburg. Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, the maestro's wife and founder of the Ravenna Festival, was on hand as well, rubbing elbows with Jürgen Flimm, the Salzburg Festival's artistic director, and Markus Hinterhäuser, its head of concert programming. Also in attendance was Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, where Muti takes over as music director next month.
A state occasion, then, but also--first and foremost--a gathering of loyal, longtime, and trusted friends. The speeches were polyglot, revealing, and from the heart. Reconstructed from memory and where necessary recast in English, the following "quotations" surely deviate from the letter of what was said, but not from the spirit or content.
Rabl-Stadler's overarching theme (developed in English, Italian, and her native German, with a smattering of Russian for the benefit of Borodina and Abdrazakov) was the supremacy of Salzburg among music festivals throughout its 90-year history. And what, she asked, are the pillars of Salzburg's reputation? The sustained presence of the Vienna Philharmonic, supreme among orchestras, and the peerless roster of top maestros the orchestra recruits to lead, supreme among them in our time Riccardo Muti.
Turning back the clock, Rabl-Stadler recalled the triumph of his Salzburg debut with Donizetti's frothy Don Pasquale in 1971, when the aquiline, autocratic Herbert von Karajan held sway. Muti turned 30 that summer.
"You've said it was the age of the gods," Rabl-Stadler said. "Karajan himself, whose presence you could feel at the Festspielhaus even when he wasn't there. Sviatoslav Richter. David Oistrakh. You've said you couldn't quite believe that you were walking among them."
She repeated the oft-told tale about a fateful phone call Muti received at the crack of dawn one day while on tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Raleigh, North Carolina. "Karajan," said the voice on the other end of the line. Nobody's fool, Muti started guessing who the prankster might be. Yet the business at hand was serious. Karajan was calling to offer Muti Mozart's celestial Così fan tutte, an opera the Salzburg audience long considered the private property of the elder statesman Karl Böhm, who used called it "My 'Cozy.
"Riccardo immediately recognized the implications of the proposition," Rabl-Stadler said, "and asked for some time to think it over. 'Yes or no,' said Karajan. Bravely, Riccardo said yes, and all at once, instead of Böhm's 'Cozy', they heard Muti's Cosí."
Next summer, when Muti turns 70, he returns to Salzburg for Verdi's Macbeth and concerts with both the Vienna Philharmonic and his new orchestra, the Chicago Symphony: "a festival within the Festival," in Rabl-Stadler's words. No doubt behind-the-scenes planning for the birthday festivities has already begun.
Before returning to her table, Rabl-Stadler called Muti to the lectern to pin on his lapel a new decoration, a rendering of the festival logo studded with tiny diamonds and rubies. "You say that today it's a different world, that the gods are gone," Rabl-Stadler said, her tone strangely grave. "Well, Riccardo, now the god is you." Hyperbole? The tribute reads that way, but as spoken, it registered as nothing a quiet statement of metaphorical fact.
Burgstaller, who spoke next, had crunched a number or two. "I thought: 200 performances, that's really not that many. Not even a year!" She went on to mention the festival's brand-new Young Conductors Award. "If the award had existed when you were 25," she said, "you would certainly have been the winner." She, too, had brought a memento: a tabletop-size bull in pink-veined marble. (Seldom bestowed, the statuette commemorates a colorful episode in Salzburg history. Under siege in the castle, the famished citizens were down to one last bull. But rather than slaughter the beast for food, they paraded him on the ramparts, painted a different color each day. Tricked into thinking the Salzburgers had the supplies to keep holding out, the enemy withdrew.)
Were it in his nature to wax pompous at the microphone, Muti would now have had his chance. Rather, his off-the-cuff remarks displayed the scintillating, ingrained contradictions of a personality at once deep and simple. Humility is as much a cornerstone of his character as his sober sense of self-worth; the seriousness of his commitment to music and the ideals it encodes at times takes on a roguish glint.
Though he spoke of how much he had learned from the Vienna Philharmonic and poked fun at the calling of the musician who on his own produces no sound, these were no vacuous diplomatic formalities. "It was nice of Gabi Burgstaller to say that at 25 I would have received the Young Conductors Award if it had existed," he said, "but it isn't true. When I was 25, I was still a student. I know that today there are many conductors who step out in front of orchestras very early. My teacher, Antonino Votto, the first assistant to Toscanini, said to me, 'Muti, study music. Don't study how to move your arms. That will come automatically. The hands are just the extension of the mind.'"