CHICAGO - The last time Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti conducted a concert, Feb. 23 in Orchestra Hall, few of us realized that the music was about to stop.

By March 12, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a halt to large gatherings in the wake of the deadly coronavirus, shutting down large Chicago venues such as Symphony Center. A few days later, Pritzker expanded the moratorium to bars and restaurants, meaning that live music went silent across Illinois.

After Muti's last CSO concert, in which he performed Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 and Nicolas Bacri's "Ophelia's Tears," the conductor returned to his home in Ravenna, Italy - and has been there ever since.

Italy now currently stands as the coronavirus' epicenter. And Muti marvels at the country's heroes and grieves for its dead.

"The Italians have shown in this difficult, difficult time a great sense of discipline and courage," said Muti, speaking by phone from his home.

"For people that generally are considered extroverts, we are giving an image of a country that when it's the moment - when the moment becomes very serious - we are like one person. So, of course, there are a few people that still don't obey the rule, but this is a very small minority. To see the Italians to stay outside the pharmacy or market – all in line, distant, at least one meter, it's something that we - it's a new experience for us.

"Because generally people know that in the past, even when we have to go to a bus, instead of having an English line full of discipline, we have an assault. But now, in this moment, everybody is trying his best."

Still, as the casualties mount and the disease spreads, there's no escaping the pandemic's toll. Especially in Muti's homeland.

"Italy, where many people die in the hospital, they cannot even have the comfort of the relatives," said Muti. "The husband or the wife or the father or the son cannot go to say the last goodbye, to hold the hand.

"So people die in absolute solitude. And the other day, I saw on television, Bergamo - one of the cities more in trouble - in the evening a long line of (Army) trucks full of coffins, a long line going to the cemetery. And now the cemeteries are full. And people don't know where to put (the dead).

"If we start to analyze the situation, in every detail, it's so tragic that we should really be more than desperate. Where do you find comfort? Where?"

For Muti and for listeners around the world, some comfort and consolation, escape and hope, can be found in music. This is why, he said, we all have seen so many videos of Italians singing together outside their apartments - physically separated but united in song.

"Napoli, the city where people were outside the balconies singing - that is not a sign of superficiality," said Muti. "It is the typical way of the Italians, and especially for the Neopolitans, to find a way through the music, through singing, to push away the evil.

"In any case, we remember the phrase that I told you one evening: St. Augustine, he said: 'Cantare amantis est,'" which roughly translates as "singing belongs to one who loves."

Or as Muti interpreted it, "If you love mankind, if you love nature around you, you feel that you can sing the glory."

So the conductor – whose post-Chicago concerts in Japan, Vienna and Paris were canceled - also turned to music. Now he can spend time at the piano playing Schumann, Chopin and Debussy, he said. More important, he has immersed himself in one of the most profound and mysterious works ever penned: Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."

Muti is scheduled to conduct the CSO in the massive composition Sept. 24-26 in Orchestra Hall, toward the beginning of the next season. He finds that the current grave moment – in which millions, including himself, are confined to home – may be ideal for trying to understand an epic work that ponders nothing less than humanity's place in the universe.

"Now my mind is completely in 'Missa Solemnis,'" said Muti. "Going back to the score after so many decades - I started to look at the score in 1970. Then I left because it was too complicated." To clarify, he then said, "Not complicated, because I was a very good student of counterpoint, and 'Missa Solemnis' is the triumph of counterpoint.

"But it was too mystical, too deep, too high. I was not able to – to conduct is one thing, to move the arms. (But) to go deeply into this kind of mysterious music, where counterpoint becomes not just an exercise but all these lines so full of intensity. It's clear that Beethoven in the 'Missa Solemnis' has reached the highest level not only of inspiration, but also the craft. His technique as a composer – using the counterpoint and winning against the rules of the counterpoint itself!

"Now that I'm studying the score, after having for years conducted so much music of different composers, I am approaching this score with a new perspective, with a deeper understanding."

At 78 and arguably at the height of his powers as conductor and interpreter, Muti indeed seems well-positioned at last to take on a work he never has performed before.

Earlier this year, he explained to me his reluctance to take on the "Missa Solemnis" by citing his friend and fellow conductor, Carlos Kleiber. As Muti recalled, Kleiber told him "there is certain music that should remain on paper, should not be brought to life, because it's so deep, so metaphysical, that it's impossible to create in reality what you feel (by) looking in the score.".

So what has it been like for Muti finally to confront this masterpiece - at a time when the entire world is in crisis, facing the sobering truths Beethoven contemplated in the "Missa Solemnis"?

"It's a full immersion in - I cannot say heaven, because it would be too rhetoric(al) to say this," explained Muti.

"But it's like you're alone in the Sistine Chapel, without other people near you. You can deeply absorb this masterpiece.

"It's important in this moment, because I have time. ... I don't have to go to the rehearsal, to have a meeting or to prepare for travel, to go there, to go there. It's a dedication completely to this work. And fortunately, I can look at these notes with much more understanding than before.

"And I'm not saying I'm enjoying, because it's a verb that I hate. Too much in America: Enjoy the fish, enjoy the wine.

"In front of a masterpiece like the 'Missa Solemnis,' you don't enjoy. You just go deeply in the music. It is so metaphysical, mysterious now. ... It's like the last sonatas of Beethoven, the last quartetti. In an area where the air is very pure and very refined and very subtle.

"It's like to be on the high mountains."

In this music, said Muti, he hears echoes of earlier works by previous masters, their influence shaping the "Missa Solemnis."

Beethoven's magnum opus is "a demonstration of his great ability - like Mozart in the last movement of 'Jupiter' Symphony," which indeed in its final pages seems to sum up the tragedies and beauties of life itself.

"Or Verdi – the finale of 'Falstaff,' when he uses the fugue for the demonstration of great ability to use the academic forms, but being able to win against the academy. ... And after (Muti conducted) so many masses of Cherubini, you understand why Beethoven had such great respect for Cherubini."

Sooner or later, the scourge of the coronavirus will end, and we'll all be left to pick up the pieces of what remains. Muti sees great challenges not only in getting to that much longed-for moment but in facing what comes after.

"Suddenly, everybody will go in the streets, everybody will be like lost people," said Muti, trying to envision how we rebuild.

"Now we are all in a tunnel. I don't know if some of the scientists, doctors can (yet) see the light at the end of the tunnel. But unless it's the end of the world, at a certain point we have to see this light. From this enormous tragedy, I think that people are learning to respect each other, to be kind one to the other, much more than before.

"And now the question I ask to myself: Is it possible that after this great tragedy, mankind will come out better in the sense that we, after this fear, we understand the importance of life, the importance to love each other, the importance of culture, the importance to help the poor people, the nations that are in trouble? To come out better?"

At the same time, Muti wonders whether the pandemic "is sort of a general rehearsal for mankind. That tomorrow a war, based on the virus, can destroy completely mankind in a few days. So maybe this will be a lesson."

As for his colleagues and friends in Chicago, where Muti has been CSO music director since 2010, he said that he misses them greatly, that the separation makes him "feel lonely - it's a terrible feeling."

He advises them to stay away from the 24-hour TV news reports, as much as possible, and to spend more time reading and listening to music. In addition to his study of the "Missa Solemnis," he has been preparing for his upcoming CSO performances of Florence Price's Symphony No. 3 (April 23-28) and the world premiere of CSO composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli's "Orpheus Undone" (April 30-May 3).

Should those concerts be canceled, Muti will schedule them for whenever the music-making resumes, he said.

In the meantime, the crisis injures everyone and "certainly it's very, very difficult for an orchestra, musicians that for decades every day have been together, sitting one near the other, suddenly to stay away one from the other – it's tragic," said Muti.

"Then when this period will end, this tragic period, then it will not be easy to put together again the orchestra and to start again to find the emotions that we have abandoned," and that the musicians express through music.

"Because psychologically, it's possible that we will be different immediately after this disease disappears.

"The return to normal life will not be something that in 24 hours (will be) very easy to find.

"But then we will find ourselves again."

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