Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative: Verdi and Mozart

It’s hard to believe, but the last time Maestro Muti led an open rehearsal with Chicago student musicians was all the way back in September of 2019, almost two years ago! Since the COVID-19 pandemic started last year in March, things have pretty much been on pause for us here in Chicago, and so you can imagine what an incredibly welcome and fulfilling experience it was to return back to these open rehearsals (even if it was only through Zoom). As I’ve said countless of times before on this blog, these rehearsals are the most meaningful and insightful components of the process of making classical music come to life, mostly because Maestro Muti communicates the nuanced aspects of interpretation of these works in a way that is entirely accessible and easy to grasp, but at the same time, still contains so much depth and complexities that inevitably forces you to really reflect and think about what it is you’re listening to and how the work can be placed in the context of the time of its composer, as well as the context of today’s world. And that to me is just super fascinating.

For yesterday’s rehearsal, Maestro Muti (speaking from Ravenna!) worked with students from the newly formed Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, along with those from the Civic Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta Project Inclusion fellowship, and focused on the two composers that are most closely associated with him: Verdi and Mozart. Since we’re all still in the COVID mode of operations, only small chamber ensembles are allowed, so it’s fitting that the pieces of focus for the rehearsal was Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor (I. Allegro) and Mozart’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings in F major (III. Rondo).

The only chamber music that Verdi ever wrote was, in fact, this string quartet, which he wrote in early 1873, while he was in Naples rehearsing Aida (along with Don Carlos) at the Teatro San Carlo. Apparently, the story goes that was actually written only because his rehearsals of Aida were interrupted due to the illness of the lead soprano Teresa Stolz (although the lead mezzo-soprano Maria Waldmann also fell ill, delaying the performances as well), so Verdi used his “free” time in Naples to write this quartet. In a letter to his friend and journalist, Opprandino Arrivabene, dated the 16th of April, 1873, Verdi wrote:

“In moments of leisure in Naples I wrote a quartet. I had it played one night at my home, without giving the slightest importance to it and without any invitations whatsoever…If the quartet is beautiful or ugly, I don’t know…I know, however, that it is a quartet!”

St. Agata, 16 April 1873, Verdi’s letter to Opprandino Arrivabene. “Verdi’s Aida: The History of an Opera in Letters and Documents” (Busch, 1978).

Despite Verdi’s own ambivalence towards his composition (though he eventually did allow it to be performed in public ๐Ÿ˜€ ), the quartet is still an intriguing piece and is definitely worth examining. Maestro Muti really underscored the fact that Verdi is an operatic composer, and so even though this is a chamber piece, you can’t forget the inherent drama built into the music and the intentional markings/notations of Verdi. For example, it isn’t a mere coincidence that the theme of the second violin, during the opening movement, so closely resembles the “jealousy” theme of Amneris โ€” Verdi was upset by the rehearsals being disrupted by Stolz, and so this theme (“molto agitato, with great anxiety!!”, as Maestro Muti would emphasize), takes on a whole new meaning when contextualized with respect to the Aida happenings and should therefore be performed with so much more energy, substance, and drama than it is typically played with.

Another important feature to consider, particularly with Verdi’s music, is the importance of dynamic notations. Every marking is intentional. An example that Maestro Muti brought up was with regards to Il Trovatore. As we know, Verdi hated tenors, who always like to “shout” and sing in fff, and so for Il Trovatore, Verdi wrote twelve p’s (pppppppppppp) for the tenor! But in other operas too, for example in Macbeth, where markings like “sottovoce” and “senza voce” are incorporated all throughout the work โ€” Verdi really emphasizes the differences and nuances in sound dynamics in his works. So in the string quartet, if Verdi writes “dolcissimo“, it has to be performed much differently than “dolce”, or in the case of “pianissimo” (pp) vs. “pianississimo” (ppp). But even with these seemingly quiet, soft markings, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any drama or energy present โ€”there still exists a quiet intensity that needs to be brought out from the music, which has always been a defining characteristic of Verdi’s compositions.

One of the highlights of the rehearsal period was when Maestro Muti brought out the original manuscript of Verdi’s string quartet! Seriously, he must have a ton of rare scores/manuscripts in his library (I mean…he also has the first edition of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which is just amazingggg)

After the Verdi String quartet rehearsal, came that of the Mozart Oboe/String quartet (third movement), which is a pretty virtuosic piece for the oboe, sort of like a small-scale, quasi-concerto for the oboe. Much kudos to Zachary Allen, the featured oboist and CMPI fellow, who handily tackled the whirling scales and phrases with a crisp, resonant tone. As with a lot of Mozart’s music, there can be an inherent joviality or playfulness that should be brought out, which Maestro Muti made sure to emphasize during the rehearsal. In fact, he specifically pointed out the contrast between the “scherzando” and “giocondo” nature of the work (e.g., “the oboe should be like drinking wine in Salzburg” ๐Ÿ˜€ ) against the worldwide tragedy of the pandemic, noting that music, culture, and beauty are things that can really help society during these difficult times.

Anyways, it was super nice to have this experience again, it almost felt like things were back to normal (save for the Zoom part)! For the past couple of months, I’ve mostly been absorbed in my school/research work (some exciting updates to come soon on that front!), such that I haven’t really had a chance to dive into music at this deep level for a while. And it made me realize that I really, really miss being at Orchestra Hall with everyone and listening to/studying this brilliant music. Things are beginning to look up though โ€” vaccinations are increasing everywhere in the city and the Ravinia Festival recently announced that the CSO will have a set of concerts over the summer! So hopefully come this September, the hall will be back open and things will proceed as usual.

In other news, as mentioned yesterday, Maestro Muti is taking off for Japan today, where he’ll be resuming the Italian Opera Academy on Verdi’s Macbeth that was unfortunately canceled last year due to the pandemic. And speaking of the Academy, this year’s edition (scheduled to take place in early December) is going to feature…Verdi’s Nabucco!!! This opera is one of my all-time favorite operas โ€” as such, I’m thinking very hard about going back to Ravenna to study this work, as I can imagine there will be tons of great insights to learn. We’ll have to wait and see what the rest of the year looks like…fingers crossed!

Working through the first movement of Verdi’s String Quartet ๐Ÿ˜€

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