Travel diary: A Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutist on Muti’s European farewell tour

Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutist Emma Gerstein puts away her instrument backstage following a concert in Europe. The CSO embarked on its final tour with retiring conductor Riccardo Muti in January 2024, performing a series of sold-out concerts across six countries.

Todd Rosenberg / Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

In Europe, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commands its own devout following, especially under Riccardo Muti, the Italian maestro who recently retired from his post as the orchestra’s music director. 

“They love him in Europe. Like, really love him,” said Emma Gerstein, the orchestra’s second flutist, who has been touring the continent with 100 of her musical colleagues for much of the past month. In three weeks, they played 14 concerts in six countries to sold-out audiences who crowded to see one of Chicago’s premier cultural exports. 

It has been a landmark event: After retiring in November, Muti marked his last international junket with this CSO tour. And, as of this week, orchestra management had not yet announced a new music director. “Who knows who the orchestra will be when we return to Europe,” said Gerstein. “It’s a big question mark. It’s exciting.” 

The maestro is an icon who has left an indelible mark during 13 years with the orchestra. 

“He really changed our sound,” reflected Gerstein. “Before him, it was all about the brass and the power of the orchestra, but Muti focuses on something round and beautiful, a sound that is never aggressive or forceful.” 

Emma Gerstein’s orchestra tour diary

“Playing with the CSO was not something that felt in reach when I was a teenager,” said Emma Gerstein, who joined the orchestra in 2017.

Todd Rosenberg / Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

To capture this unique moment, Gerstein filed this tour diary from five stops on the tour. She chronicled high points — including two concerts at Vienna’s famed Musikverein — and private moments the public doesn’t usually get to see, like bathtub laundry and missing her young son back in Chicago.

Here, in Gerstein’s own words, is what it’s like to tour as a classical musician in a world-class orchestra. People, she says, even ask for your autograph. “We almost feel a little bit like celebrities when we’re on tour,” reflected Gerstein. “There’s just a different appreciation for orchestras in Europe.” 

PARIS, FRANCE, DAY 3: Paris was our second stop on the tour. I love playing in the Philharmonie de Paris. We all do. It’s a beautiful new hall where the orchestra is in the middle like a theater-in-the-round. The audience is around you and you can see everyone’s faces. I like that. I like to feel like I can connect with people. When we played a chord, you could hear it reverberating for like five seconds. It felt like a really long time. It’s such a pleasure to play there. The vibes were just pure excitement among the orchestra. It was the beginning before everyone started to get tired. 

VIENNA, AUSTRIA, DAY 13: It always feels good to be in a place where people recognize what you do and respect and value it. People love to hear us play in Vienna. It’s quite different from at home where it can feel like we’re just trying to sell tickets to our concerts and we hope people come. We were sold out in every city on this tour. It’s a really good feeling. It makes me hopeful. 

People always talk about how classical music is going to die, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. You definitely don’t feel that in Vienna. 

There’s so much history in the Musikverein, which is why so many musicians love it. Muti told us about how Brahms used to conduct Cherubini works at the Musikverein. I know Strauss and Mahler also conducted there. You feel all the history in the floorboards. It’s a magical experience to play there. I even felt that outside the hall. Right now is ball season in Vienna and the aristocracy are there attending balls. Walking around, you see shops that have tails and ball gowns for regular people. It’s funny to imagine that. It’s so different from America. It feels like you’re stepping out of time. 

VIENNA, AUSTRIA, DAY 14: When a tour is more than three weeks long, we all have to do laundry at some point. It can cost a couple of euros to wash one pair of underwear through the hotel. A lot of us end up washing our clothes in the hotel bathroom and then hanging them up around the room. You have to do it in a city where you have [time] for everything to dry. It’s a very difficult calculation, especially on a tour like this when you’re only in a city for a couple of days. 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY, DAY 16: The last time I was in Budapest was almost 20 years ago with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. The city feels much fancier now — I remember it feeling a little grimy then. Historically Budapest has been a part of many different empires so there are castles and old ruins. There are rows of houses painted in different pastel colors. We spent an entire day just walking everywhere. It’s so beautiful. 

When I came on that tour with CYSO, I had just graduated from Walter Payton College Prep and was about to start college as a flute performance major at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. I don’t think I had any clue what I was going to do as a flutist. I knew I wanted to play in an orchestra, but I had no idea how likely that was or how I would get such a job. Playing with the CSO was not something that felt in reach when I was a teenager. It’s funny to think about 18-year-old me. She wouldn’t believe me if I told her that the next time she’d come to this city it’d be with the CSO. 

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra warms up for two nights of concerts in Vienna’s famous Musikverein, one of the foremost destinations for classical music in the world.

Todd Rosenberg / Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

MILAN, ITALY, DAY 19: It was so fun to be in Italy. In Milan, we performed at La Scala, which is a very famous venue. Maestro Muti was also a music director there before he came to Chicago. He’s just kind of a superstar in Italy. He gets recognized in public and everybody knows who he is. It’s kind of insane to think about a conductor being a real public figure in America. I just don’t know the last time that happened, maybe Leonard Bernstein. 

I was thinking about all the concerts we played on the tour, and specifically the audience applause. There were regional differences. In Budapest, the audience started clapping all together in unison to a beat at intermission. Sometimes it would speed up and then it would slow down again. It was not like regular applause. In Vienna, after we had done our encore and Maestro Muti had given his signature wave that he does when he’s leaving for good, all the people on the main floor of the hall came rushing to the edge of the stage and started clapping again. I’ve never seen people do that in any other venue. And in Milan, there was just a lot of shouting in Italian. We actually played two encores, but even after that I just heard people yelling things in Italian. I don’t know what they were saying, but in my head, it seemed like they were making requests. And when we finally finished, the applause went on and on. It might have been the longest ever, I think it went on for over five minutes. Maestro Muti is so beloved here. 

ROME, ITALY, DAY 24: Heading to the airport in Rome, it was hard to believe I was finally going home. I missed my 2-year-old son a lot. At the beginning of the tour, I was trying to protect myself by not feeling how much I missed him, but in the last few days of the tour, the feeling was more palpable. I started letting myself feel that I was going to see him soon. I was ready to be home.

If you go: The CSO returns to Chicago’s Symphony Center with a Feb. 9 concert scored to the film “An American in Paris.” Tickets from $99. On Feb. 15-18, the CSO will perform Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and conductor Paavo Järvi. Tickets from $45. 

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.”

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