- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ROME (AP) - Riccardo Muti, the master conductor, is sounding an ominous note, and it isn’t rising from the orchestra pit.

The former longtime maestro at Milan’s La Scala opera house is worried that the stubborn financial crisis in much of the world risks impoverishing not just public coffers but also the arts, whose budgets, often lean even in good economic times, are among the biggest casualties in many countries.

And, said the man known for his dramatic flair at the podium, there’s more than just the risk of darkened theaters or silenced concert halls.

Muti even fears the loss of a people’s very identity.

“For our governing leaders, culture is something less important, less necessary, above all in times of economic difficulties,” Muti said in an interview Tuesday evening with The Associated Press at Rome’s Teatro dell'Opera, where he will conduct Giuseppe Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” in the season’s opener Nov. 27.

“But a people without culture is a people that loses its identity. We haven’t reached that point yet, but the danger is there.”

There are some rays of light for the maestro, who spoke enthusiastically about his current role as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (“mutual love”) and about the future of music, which he predicted will bring people together around the world. The maestro appeared relaxed in a free-ranging conversation while seated on a crimson velvet couch in a private drawing room in the theater.

While some Europeans chafe at Germany’s demands that struggling eurozone countries cut their public spending to the bone, Muti said Germany had found the right formula for treating the arts.

There were budget cuts for the arts in much of Europe, “but not in Germany.” Muti said the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has often been a guest conductor, didn’t suffer from budget ax-wielders.

“The Germans understand more than others that culture isn’t just spiritual well-being, but when it’s utilized well, when it’s valued, it brings economic well-being,” Muti said.

This is a note that Muti has sounded before. In March 2011, barely recovered from having a pacemaker installed following a fall from the podium while rehearsing in Chicago, Muti opened a performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco” at Rome’s Teatro dell'Opera by lamenting the slashing of the arts budget by the government of then-premier Silvio Berlusconi.

In the United States, orchestras around the country have seen disruptions by labor disputes as the poor economy exacts its price on the classical music world. Orchestra executives complain of flat ticket sales and sagging corporate and other private support.

In Chicago, the symphony orchestra in September went on a brief strike that forced the cancellation of a performance two hours before it was to start.

Muti declined to weigh in on American orchestras’ labor disputes. “I do not make judgments on countries where I am a guest,” said Muti, who has been with the Chicago orchestra since 2008.

Still, he urged Americans to consider music and the other arts “a patrimony that must be preserved and brought as much as possible to the various levels of society. It’s not elitism.”

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