Italian maestro wins $1M Birgit Nilsson Prize

STOCKHOLM (AP) - The Italian conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday was awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize for his “extraordinary” contributions and influence in the world of music.

Riccardo Muti has also been conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Teatro alla Scala.

“Maestro Muti is being recognized for his extraordinary contributions in opera and concert, as well as his enormous influence in the music world both on and off the stage,” the jury said in the citation.

The jury pointed out that since 1997 Muti has conducted many concerts in locations “symbolizing the world’s troubled past and contemporary history,” including in the Balkans and the Middle East. In 2009, he led a free concert for survivors of the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy.

In 2004, he also founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra of young Italian musicians.

Muti, 69, is the second winner of the prize awarded by the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which was established after the 2005 death of Nilsson, considered one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos.

The prize was first awarded in 2009 to Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, a laureate Nilsson had picked herself, but whose name was kept secret for nearly a decade before it was revealed.

Winners are chosen by the foundation and a jury of at least five members, which this year comprised the president of the Vienna Philharmonic, the co-director of the Bayreuth Festival, the managing director of the Malmo Opera, the general director of the Seattle Opera and an opera critic of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph.

The decision to award Muti was unanimous, according to the foundation president and Nilsson’s close friend, Rutbert Reisch.

Reich said he did not believe Nilsson and Muti ever worked together, but that the two “had a lot of respect for each other’s work.”

He said he flew to Chicago himself in October to tell Muti of the decision.

“First it was total surprise and then obviously how honored he felt to receive this prize. For a moment he was speechless,” Reich told reporters at the Royal Opera in the Swedish capital.

Muti, who did not attend the announcement in Stockholm, said in a statement that he was moved when he heard he had been chosen for the “distinguished” award.

“I was deeply touched by the jury’s accolade, all the more so given my profound admiration for this unique and extraordinary artist, both as an incomparable musician and as a great interpreter,” Muti said.

Last week, the maestro defied doctors’ advice and took to the podium at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera only five weeks after heart surgery following a fall from the podium while rehearsing in Chicago. He ended the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco” by conceding a rare encore of the chorus and conducted the audience.

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