RAVENNA – Conducting a joyful Mozart motet, Riccardo Muti sent a resounding message Sunday night, that live classical music has returned to the Italian stage after the coronavirus lockdown.
A full summer festival program is planned in his adopted home of Ravenna, even as the musical outlook remains grim in the United States, where he also conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The 78-year-old renowned conductor said the coronavirus had ‘’destroyed music,’’ with shuttered venues depriving the world of ‘’spiritual food’’ as it faced a pandemic that still threatens uncalculated economic repercussions beyond the lives lost.
Even during two world wars, Muti noted, theaters stayed open to provide cultural relief except during the worst of the bombings.
‘’In that sense, this virus was even more devastating than bombs,’’ Muti told The Associated Press before the inaugural concert for the Ravenna Festival’s 30th anniversary season, in which he conducted the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra that he founded in 2004.
The festival, founded by Muti's wife, salvaged its season by scheduling its nearly 50 events in outdoor venues with limited audiences, and spacing musicians at least a meter apart — challenging what Muti noted was the literal symphonic order of ’’playing together.''
‘’In the message of solidarity that I send to the entire cultural world, I give a signal from Ravenna, that at a certain point you can restart, you must restart, with caution and with care,’’ said Muti, who has been at the helm of some of the world’s most famous theaters, including Milan’s La Scala and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. In the United States, he won accolades leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1980s and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010.
‘’You pay a high price for the absence of culture,'' he said.
The Ravenna Festival program, which runs through July, is another signal of the gradual reawakening of European classical music after strict closures to slow the spread of coronavirus. In a sign of its symbolic importance, Italy’s Senate president and culture minister attended, along with the head of the UNESCO world heritage center, in recognition of the small city of Ravenna’s outsized role in world history as a three-time ancient capital with eight protected monuments, and the final resting place of poet Dante Alighieri.
In other signs of cultural life, Muti conducted Cimarosa, Mozart and Schubert earlier this month with the Vienna Philharmonic, with a full orchestra at a normal distance thanks to regular virus testing, while theaters in Florence and Venice have staged concerts with small audiences. Milan’s La Scala will signal its re-emergence with a few musical evenings in July ahead of its official reopening in September.
After leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a European tour in January, Muti spent Italy’s lockdown in Ravenna, studying for what is supposed to be the CSO’s September season-opening of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis.” But the start of the season remains in question, as U.S. cultural landmarks like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Theater have announced their closure through the end of the year due to the virus’s threat.
’’It is too easy to say: ‘Close.’ But ... there are thousands of people who no longer provide culture and spiritual food to the public, and who, at a certain point, won’t have even a salary to live on,’’ Muti said.
Muti suggested that concerts could be held in Chicago’s Memorial Park, with 2,000 guests instead of the 30,000 capacity, and by first testing musicians for the virus and possibly sticking to a repertoire that limits the number of musicians on stage.
During part of the CSO's season that was canceled, Muti was to have conducted in April a symphony by African American composer Florence Price, which the program said “gives powerful voice to the African American experience.” Muti, who has been watching the Black Lives Matters protests from afar, said classical music must do more to integrate people of color.
In Chicago, he works with the orchestra’s African American network to bring the local Black community to concerts and rehearsals, growing to 3,000 members since 2016. But he also recalls a 1991 concert he conducted in Philadelphia in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., where for the “first and only time I saw the Academy of Music filled 90% with African Americans.”
“My dream would be to have many more African Americans in orchestras, choruses and in audiences,” Muti said.
“But this was also our own fault, by giving the sensation that our musical culture is a culture of an elite, a culture of superior people, of very refined people. It is not true. We must open our arms, as we have done and will continue to do in Chicago.”