The frailty of Riccardo Muti

When I think of frail conductors, I think of the late German maestro Gunter Wand, standing small on the podium before the Berlin Philharmonic and looking downright battered by the volume of sound they were emitting during the Bruckner 8th. Riccardo Muti, by contrast, a mere 71, projects a somewhat hale and handsome image. Yet Muti, since he took over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010, has turned out to be one of the most fragile conductors around, almost rivaling James Levine in a combination of bad health luck and falling off objects that are intended to support him.

Let’s review: Muti’s opening weeks in the fall of 2010 were cut short by stomach pains that necessitated his return to Italy. In February of 2011, he returned to the orchestra - and fell off the podium, sustaining facial fractures that required surgery; the event led to the installation of a pacemaker. Now on Thursday, only a few days before the CSO’s departure for a tour of Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Korea, the orchestra announced that he had not only contracted the flu, but learned that he had an inguinal hernia that would require immediate surgical intervention.

Stepping in for him for the bulk of the tour is Rappahannock County’s own Lorin Maazel, who in the wake of his music directorship of the New York Philharmonic seems to have become everyone’s favorite world-renowned interim solution (he’s currently serving a three-year term as music director of the Munich Philharmonic). Maazel has more than ten years on Muti, but, apart from an occasional cold, he appears to have him beat in the health department.

Young Latin American conductor takes US music director chair

Muti doesn’t only cancel in Chicago. Last November, illness forced him to cancel a series of concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. His replacement was the Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, 35, who lives in Vienna, is music director of that city’s Tonkünstler Orchestra (see above video), and had already made one high-profile substitute appearance with that orchestra when Esa-Pekka Salonen cancelled two years previously. Orozco-Estrada’s career is clearly taking off: on Wednesday, the Houston Symphony announced that, at the start of the 2014-15 season, he will become its next music director.

A friend, on hearing this news, asked if I thought the Dudamel effect was coming into play: that other orchestras were hoping to get a piece of the exuberance and youth of the marquee music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think -- or hope -- the answer is bigger than that; Dudamel and El Sistema, the Venezuelan training system that produced him, have certainly become bywords in the classical music field, but even they are part of a general larger awareness that the music world’s leaders need to be drawn from a pool beyond the confines of Western and Central Europe.

Our country, as a whole, is still processing the news from the 2012 presidential election, in which capturing the white male vote was not enough for victory, and in which Hispanic voters represented one of the keys to success. Obviously the seeds of Orozco-Estrada’s ascension to this new post were planted well before that election, but if classical music organizations start more and more to be led by people who are younger and represent different ethnicities and genders than the previous classical-music norm, it does show a certain awareness of a social context that has not previously characterized the field. It makes perfect sense for Los Angeles, with a substantial Latino population, to have a Spanish-speaking music director; the same holds true in Houston.

If Orozco-Estrada does represent a trend, it might be a trend toward engaging younger and less well-known names rather than competing for the big stars. Take a look at some of the recent music-director appointments around the country: Ludovic Morlot in Seattle, Jaap van Zweden in Dallas, Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh, Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia, Alan Gilbert in New York, and now Orozco-Estrada in Houston. None was, or even is, a big name, but a couple of them already appear to be signal successes -- I certainly applaud Honeck, and look forward to hearing Van Zweden when he comes to the NSO in April.

Of course, this trend toward the less-known may simply be a symptom of another current trend at virtually every classical music organization: the need to save money.