Seen and Heard International
by Dennis Polkow
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“Sometimes I am forced to conduct music I don’t like,” Riccardo Muti admits to a room full of incarcerated male juveniles at the Illinois Youth Center on Chicago’s West side on a fall Sunday afternoon.

It is a day off for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director, but Muti has spent it preparing and now presenting a program with vocalists and CSO musicians, all like Muti, volunteering their time. This is his eighth visit to a Chicago-area correctional institution since becoming CSO music director in 2010, and his second to this particular facility.

Like the handful of visitors present, all of the participating artists had gone through background checks, were given a list of do’s and don’t’s, were put through a metal detector and hand frisked and could bring nothing inside, and were allowed no keys, no cellphones—only a mandatory photo ID to gain access behind the barbed-wire iron gates which are controlled by guards buzzing in outsiders, one at a time.

“We are here to perform some ‘classical’ music for you: that worries you, no?” says Muti, as he suddenly turns and looks directly at a restless resident. “Music that you never heard before, sometimes different than music you hear a lot.

“Who am I? I’m Italian,” says Muti, which receives some giggles, given his obvious accent. “Southern Italian,” Muti clarifies. “I studied in Napoli and Milano. My father thought studying music was important for culture. I was reluctant. I couldn’t read music and my father thought we should stop paying for lessons.

As mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, sporting a shoulderless long black dress, gets up from her seat and comes to the front of the room, Muti situates himself at the grand piano with his glasses and score. DiDonato is in Chicago making her CSO debut with a Muti favorite that she is singing for the first time, Martucci’s haunting song cycle La canzone dei ricordi. Muti announces, “We’re going to start with a very famous lady singing a very famous German aria.”

“Well, not Beyoncé famous,” DiDonato humorously quips to the curious assemblage, “but opera famous, which is a different thing. This is a piece I love to sing because it is an audience favorite. My character is in prison, and we are there with her. She is isolated, emotional and crying. It repeats a beautiful melody several times, but more elaborately. Do you know the Hallelujah Chorus? Anyone?” A couple of residents raise their hands. “This is the same guy who wrote that,” DiDonato says as she takes a long pause before starting into an extraordinarily poignant “Lascia chi’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo that vibrantly fills the room, supported by Muti’s remarkably restrained ethereal piano accompaniment.

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