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Riccardo Muti is at the pinnacle of his profession as he leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra into its 125th season. Here, a profile in nine movements.

Muti takes a pause in an unusual spot—the seats in Orchestra Hall. “The musicians are waiting for a guide—not to be told how to play but how to interpret the music,” he says. “They wait to hear a musical idea. An interesting idea.”

An ordinary Wednesday morning in January, bright and cold, and inside the glowing main room of Orchestra Hall, Riccardo Muti is about to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. World-renowned pianist Yefim Bronfman is on the bench, looking rumpled. Muti, in gray slacks and a trim cashmere sweater, walks confidently out from the wings to a warm smattering of applause that he acknowledges with a few small waves. He goes straight to the podium, picks up his baton and looks over his left shoulder to see if Bronfman is ready.

The Brahms concerto is an hourlong, popular major work, though it begins rather quietly. At first, the conductor doesn’t seem to have much to do. A solo horn sounds a sort of melancholy phrase. The piano answers. This happens twice. Easy.

But about 80 seconds later, these niceties are put aside, and the full orchestra revs up. The score looks like an inkjet printer has run amok, spraying thousands of notes across every part; still, in each passing moment, the 80 or so musicians onstage play with rapid precision, all eyes glancing at their music, then up at Muti, then back.

Certainly he is keeping the beat, the pace of his swirling arms determining how fast the music unfolds. At moments, he lunges forward like a fencer, asking the world-class musicians for more emphasis. At other times, he crouches almost below podium level, pulling the sound down, seeking a more delicate balance. It’s clear he is somehow responsible for the entire spectacle, somehow making dozens of adults exert their will and talent in the same direction at the same time. But it’s clear, too, that something else is going on, something beyond the sum of the parts. Something invisible.

On an appearance on the Charlie Rose show in 2012, Muti likened the CSO to a Ferrari—so responsive and powerful that it is not nearly enough to be a technician: One must also know how to drive. When he first began conducting five decades ago, he says he was “concerned especially about the beat, the mechanical element that keeps the orchestra together.” Now his work on the podium is about making the music communicate. And what’s required for that is a kind of paradox: Stirring the heart takes years and years of technical study.

“The musicians are waiting for a guide—not to be told how to play but how to interpret the music,” he tells me one evening in his office in the basement of Symphony Center. “This is what musicians of this caliber expect from a conductor. They wait to hear a musical idea. An interesting idea. ‘OK,’ they are saying. ‘You are there. We are here. We know this piece very well. We’ve played it a thousand times. Do you have something new to tell us? We believe that you can be a good traffic policeman—that you can do that. You have technique. Now tell us what you want.’”

Muti is now in his fifth year in Chicago, having signed on after an extended recruiting effort from longtime CSO Association President Deborah Rutter (she now heads The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.). By contract, he spends at least 10 weeks a year in Chicago, outside of tours (the CSO had five triumphant weeks in Europe in 2014), and a year ago announced that he has re-upped and will serve as Zell music director through June 2020.

Home for Muti today, on the rare times he can get there, is Ravenna, a seaside town in Northeast Italy where his wife of many decades, Cristina Mazzavillani, runs a successful music festival. The couple has two sons and a daughter.

Muti claims two places of origin, a dual allegiance seemingly required of a man born of a father from the Apulia region (comprising Italy’s heel and points north) and a mother from Naples, on the nation’s west coast. In either case, as he will say, he is “from the South.”

He frequently notes this fact to make a point about his personality. While it is of course a cliche, Italians from the South are said to have fiery tempers, exhibiting more passion and stubbornness than their northern countrymen. (It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that Muti is acknowledged as the greatest living interpreter of Giuseppe Verdi—a Northerner, but considered a wildly dramatic and romantic composer.)

For Muti’s birth (and those of his four siblings), his mother took a train back to her hometown, had the baby and then returned a short time later, apparently without objection from his physician father. In the case of Riccardo, born July 28, 1941, this journey would have been undertaken during wartime.

Muti spent the first 16 years of his life in Molfetta, on the Adriatic coast to the east, making rounds with his father and enduring the extremely strict education system of the day. Family lore has it that, at the age of 3, his parents took him to a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, a boisterous four-act, 3 1/2-hour spectacle, and he sat through it patiently. For the winter holidays in 1948, he received a small-scale violin and began his musical studies.

He hated it and, in the first three months, made no progress. “In the end,” he writes in his 2010 autobiography, First the Music, Then the Words, his teacher “asked [his] father to just let it go.” Though his mother had little interest in music, she suggested they give it another month. That worked, and before the age of 10, he was playing concerts in public. In his early teens, Muti switched his focus to piano, and he became even more accomplished on that instrument.

No doubt to his mother’s delight, in 1956 he was accepted into the conservatory back in Naples, an institution superior to his options in the east. “Filled with fear,” he subbed in as a conductor for a student recital. And so it began.

Once, while his father visited patients in a hospital built during the Crusades, young Riccardo was called upon to play the organ at Mass for the monks in the similarly ancient church next door. Causing what he describes as a “slight scandal,” during Holy Communion he chose the “brindisi” from Verdi’s opera La Traviata.

The “brindisi” from La Traviata (the opera’s name means “The Fallen Woman”) is a rousing, catchy drinking song, among the most familiar in classical music, and its first verse may be translated thusly: “Let’s drink… and may the brief moment be inebriated with voluptuousness. Let’s drink for the ecstatic feeling that love arouses.”

“It’s not important to be loved by the musicians because love is a very strong word,” he says. “Of course, if they love you, even better. But what is important is to be respected. You can have situations where musicians don’t agree 100 percent with your interpretation. Everybody has their own idea because they are fine musicians. But if you are able to convince them that what you have in mind is in any case interesting and that it’s not… what is it in America? Bullshit?”

He nods, somewhat conspiratorially, his point concluded. “I have learned this word. It’s just that you need real substance. [Arturo] Toscanini said, ‘To move the arm, any donkey can do. To make music moving the arm? That is very difficult.’”

Muti barnstormed around Italy early in his career, conducting some of the finest smaller orchestras there, and spent most of the 1970s in Florence. In 1972, after he conducted a concert with the New Philharmonia of London, the musicians asked him to stay on.

There, he succeeded the great Otto Klemperer­—one of the first of the many times he has followed in the footsteps of titans. “I was 31 and still had only intermittent contact with foreign orchestras,” he writes in the autobiography. “I’d never been to America or worked with the Berlin Philharmonic.”

All that was about to change. He was invited back to Vienna every year for decades. Eugene Ormandy (another giant) heard him conduct in London and invited him to come to America to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, among the most-revered groups in the world. After his Carnegie Hall debut, the New York Times critic headlined his article, “Riccardo Muti: Master of Baton.” He took over that band in 1979 and stayed through 1992. From 1986 to 2005, he also ran La Scala, perhaps the world’s greatest opera house, in Milan.

From a radio interview with Chicago arts critic Andrew Patner, who died suddenly in early February:
Muti: Some years ago, I was on the football team of the Ravenna music festival.
Patner [surprised]: What position did you play?
Muti [also surprised]: The captain.

Muti has stated plainly that the CSO will be his last major stop. He likes it here. “I’ve seen many, many cities, but I think that Chicago is really the most beautiful city in America,” he says to me as we sip Italian soda. “Great architecture. A special light that comes from the sky, from the lake, from the streets. I grew up on the sea. For me, water is absolutely important. I cannot stay in a place without the water. And here, it’s like a sea.”

The Brahms again, this time to a full house. The final movement dances, but it also drives inexorably toward a climax. The musicians sway in unison. The sound swells and fills the hall, the orchestra in a fierce dialogue with the piano. And Muti?

Just then, surprisingly, he’s suddenly more compact. But the surge arrives, transcendent, beckoned by his smallest gesture. To make the music happen, it’s almost—almost—as if he didn’t have to move at all.