Tuesday night we went to a concert at San Carlo Opera House in Naples, the miracle built in six months for King Charles III, and recently restored to elegance. I’d been in San Carlo before, but had never heard music played live, and Riccardo Muti—a native son of Naples—gave it a real workout with Shostakovich’s intense 5th Symphony, conducting his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now on a grand tour that has taken them to Moscow, St Petersburg and Rome.
There is a sweetness to the music that I don’t believe I’ve heard before, and indeed Muti had told his musicians that playing San Carlo would be something very special for them. According to the local newspaper, they were very impressed, not only with the hall, but also with the audience. When the orchestra was playing, I could not see anyone talking or whispering, we were all totally captured by the power and quality of the music.
All of which took me back to one of my favorite little films, “The Orchestra Rehearsal,” that Fellini made for Italian TV in his later years. It’s about a rebellious orchestra that rises up against its German conductor, and undertakes to conduct itself. The tyrannical conductor is driven out, but the orchestra quickly disintegrates into conflict and chaos. They need the discipline of the conductor to perform well, and he comes back and counts out the time for them…in German.
It was Fellini’s contemptuous reply to the “revolutionaries” of the sixties and seventies, and I’ve always believed—as he did—that true creativity requires a context of firm rules and discipline. It’s no accident, for example, that so many top jazz musicians—the art form that demands constant improvisation—are also exceptional classical musicians. Their mastery of the disciplined, written music of the masters helps them improvise when they’ve only got chords and tempo to work with.
So here’s the thing with Muti: he is certainly the conductor, and there are times when he imposes total control on the orchestra (especially during transitions to different tempos). But there are also times when he drops or folds his hands, and just lets them play. Isn’t that terrific? What a gesture of confidence and esteem! I had the feeling that he was thoroughly enjoying the performance, and I’m sure that his musicians were delighted to give him the pleasure.
So I think I learned a new wrinkle to my understanding of power and freedom from Riccardo Muti and the great Chicago Symphony. Paradoxically, if the holders of power grant greater freedom to their subjects, it will actually enhance their own power, not, as it superficially appears, undermine it. And it strengthens the trust of the ruled in the wisdom of the ruler.
This important insight comes very naturally to thoughtful Neapolitans, who have long lived in a chaotic world under arbitrary rule. They are among the most creative people in the world—I have written an entire book to explain their remarkable creativity- and they are frustrated by the lack of discipline in their own city. On the other hand, they also know that it’s easy to slide from proper discipline into various forms of tyranny, and the best of them, like Muti, manage to find a happy balance.
But then, Muti works in Chicago, where he can see what happens when there is too much control. It’s the flip side of Naples, in a way. Chicago’s moment of great creativity is certainly not today. “Chicago rules” are not suitable for great music. They are too stifling, too corrupt, too intolerant.
As we have learned to our great peril.