The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Lesson from Muti

Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic et al. in the Verdi Requiem at the Salzburg Festival, August 13, 2019 (Salzburg Festival / Marco Borrelli)

Last night, Riccardo Muti conducted the Verdi Requiem at the Salzburg Festival. (For a review of mine, go here.) Muti is a senior and venerable conductor. He is a delightful person, as he confirms in interviews with me and others. He can also be imperious on the stage.

He has been known to admonish or rebuke the audience. I have seen him glare at them, and I have seen him stop conducting altogether, when they make too much noise. I used to rap him for this. Maybe because I’m an American. “The customer is always right.” “The customer is king.” A concert hall is a public space, not a private chapel. Policing of the audience is arrogant. A conductor should be the boss of the orchestra, not of the hall, and besides: Who’s paying? The customer.

Last night, early in the Requiem, there was some coughing in the audience, and Muti, while still conducting, turned around as if to say, “WTF?”

I must say, I loved it. He is the same as ever while I have changed my mind. Why? I’m not sure. I think it’s because I’m fed up with a more populist age than usual. Leaders are always kissing the backsides of the people, the great, holy People. But sometimes the people, like the law, “is an ass.” Muti is a leader willing to spank those backsides from time to time.

To be sure, he’s not running for office.

Yesterday, Jeb Bush tweeted about runaway spending by the federal government. “D.C. doesn’t care,” he said. So true. It’s also true, however, that The People don’t care. They are the ones sending the officials to D.C. In a democracy, people get their way, to a large degree.

Did you note this in the Washington Post last month? “Trump recently told West Wing aides that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him no politician had ever lost office for spending more money. Two people with direct knowledge confirmed that McConnell delivered that message in a June phone call about budget sequestration.” (Article here.)

McConnell is, of course, quite right.

Now, how do you talk turkey to people — how do you level with them, and give them some truths they probably don’t want to hear — and win their votes anyway? Well, that takes leadership. Skillful, committed, honest leadership.

Everyone loves to “speak truth to power.” Very few love to speak truth to the people — where, in our country, thank goodness, the power lies.

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