Just before the opening of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s seventieth season, our sixth music director Fritz Reiner suffered a heart attack on October 7, 1960. He had been scheduled to conduct the first four weeks of concerts, but his recuperation forced the cancellation of his remaining appearances for the calendar year.
Replacement conductors included CSO associate conductor Walter Hendl, Robert Shaw (leading Beethoven’s Missa solemnis), Erich Leinsdorf (to conduct a special Saturday evening concert on October 15 featuring the U.S. debut of Sviatoslav Richter as soloist in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto), and Antonino Votto (who would soon become Riccardo Muti‘s conducting teacher).
Votto was in Chicago to make his debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago and (according to their Performance + Cast Archive) he led the season opening performances of Verdi’s Don Carlo on October 14, 21, and 24. The cast included Giulietta Simionato, Margherita Roberti, Richard Tucker, Tito Gobbi, and Boris Christoff. Votto also conducted performances of Verdi’s Aida on October 17, 19, 22, and 28, with a cast that included Leontyne Price, Simionato, Carlo Bergonzi, and Robert Merrill.
According to an October 16, 1960, CSO press release: “Antonino Votto will conduct the subscription concerts in the third week of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current season. The concerts of Tuesday afternoon, October 25, and the subscription pair of Thursday-Friday, October 27-28, originally scheduled for music director Fritz Reiner, will be directed by the Italian conductor who is currently in Chicago for his first season with the Lyric Opera. A leading conductor of both opera and symphony concerts at La Scala in Milan, Maestro Votto’s appearance with the Orchestra has been made possible through the courteous cooperation of Miss Carol Fox, General Manager of the Lyric Opera.”
Both programs were modified (see images right and below) to accommodate conductor and soloist. According to Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune regarding the first concert on October 25: “From the start of Haydn’s London Symphony thru the Mozart with Guiomar Novaes and Debussy’s Faun to the perfectly planned and executed climax of a stunning Pictures at an Exhibition this was a major concert on the sounder shores of style” (complete review is here). Also according to Cassidy, word traveled fast and the following two concerts on Thursday and Friday quickly sold out: “. . . Votto is a man to respect a score, an orchestra and a soloist. When you add that to knowing your business and you can work with other musicians on a high level remarkable things can happen. Such as orchestral equilibrium, a sense of proportion in displaying a soloist, a mounting excitement on the stage and in the audience. In other words, quite a concert” (complete review is here).
According to a newspaper account, Reiner—from his hospital bed at Presbyterian/Saint Luke’s—was able to hear a portion of the Friday afternoon matinee via “telephone from a remote pickup thru a microphone in the concert hall to a loudspeaker in the manager’s office.” Reiner’s statement: “Please convey my warm compliments on the splendid performance of Mme. Novaes and Maestro Votto. I enjoyed very much the finesse and style of the orchestra, which has been inoculated in the years of our association.”
Votto was re-engaged at Lyric the following season for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on October 14, 16, and 18, 1961 (with Joan Sutherland, Bergonzi, and Tucker); Giordano’s Andrea Chenier on October 20, and 25, 28 (with Shakeh Vartenissian and Jon Vickers); and the company premiere of Boito’s Mefistofele on October 21, 23, and 27 (with Ilva Ligabue, Christa Ludwig, Christoff, and Bergonzi).
Votto returned to Italy and in November 1962, twenty-one-year-old Riccardo Muti met him during his first year as a student at the Milan Conservatory. Muti remembers: “And then there was Votto, whom I recall so vividly. He was solemn and incredibly strict, and had worked with [Arturo] Toscanini during his years at La Scala. . . . Within a few days, however, I realized that Votto had taken a liking to me, to the point of giving me—as if to prefer me over less talented students, or ones he didn’t like as much—some pieces to conduct for the performances the following year. Not only did I take a class with him, but I also attended some of his rehearsals at La Scala. . . . I was particularly struck when he did Falstaff: he didn’t have the score! Now, it’s one thing to conduct from memory, but to try that with Falstaff is one of those things that just leaves you flabbergasted and makes you think that maybe, with such experts around, you’d best find another job. I asked him something along those lines, and he replied: ‘If you had worked with Him, you would do the same.’ ‘Him,’ of course, meant Toscanini, with whom such work was an intense, special months-long undertaking; after that, going on memory became spontaneous, the natural result of having complete mastery of the score. . . .
“Votto’s approach was based on conductorial efficiency, music for music’s sake, no frills, no bells and whistles, going straight to the heart of opera, only essential gestures, nothing more than was absolutely necessary. In his classes he’d often repeat, ‘Don’t annoy the orchestra.’ To the uninitiated that phrase might seem absurd or misleading, calling into question the orchestra conductor’s usefulness. In reality he just wanted to advise us that, once the orchestra was on an orderly, rhythmic path (the obvious outcome of long rehearsing), the maestro mustn’t disturb that natural gait, and must therefore avoid rash gestures while on the podium, steering clear of any temptation to become a court jester; basically, he mustn’t alter what the nature of the piece itself had established. And such a position was a clear, complete reflection of Arturo Toscanini’s.”
Their friendship continued well beyond the conservatory, and when Muti married Maria Cristina Mazzavillani on June 1, 1969, in Ravenna, Votto was best man (“while Sviatoslav Richter became our ad hoc photographer and took some of the best photos”).