Riccardo Muti is one of the senior conductors of the world. For almost 50 years, he has worked at the highest levels: in London, Philadelphia, Milan, Vienna, and elsewhere. Today, he is the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

On a recent tour with the orchestra, he stopped in New York, for two concerts at Carnegie Hall. I sat down with him to talk about music and about life.

Years ago, I asked Maestro Lorin Maazel about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were “Thank God for China.”

Muti was born in 1941 in Naples (not Florida, although Naples, Florida, happens to be his very next stop). He grew up on the Adriatic coast, in the town of Molfetta. He was one of five brothers, whose father was a doctor. Each boy was expected to take up a profession. For example, “I was supposed to study law,” says Muti.

But his father was also an opera-lover, and an amateur tenor. He required that his boys learn an instrument, because “he believed that music is an important element for every person,” as Muti says. “Music helps people to be better. To become deeper in their thoughts. To be more refined inside.”

At eight, Riccardo was given a violin. Then he studied the piano, which would be his main instrument. He studied at conservatories in Naples and Milan.

It was Nino Rota who convinced him that he could be a full-time musician. Today, Rota is best known as a film composer – La Strada, The Godfather – but he was a musician of many parts. “He could play Wozzeck from memory,” says Muti, referring to Alban Berg’s modernist opera. But, in his own music, Rota “had the courage to express his own nature”. He “did not try to be a ‘contemporary’ composer”.

You go more deeply into the score and you love it more. The horizon widens. Every piece, I restudy from the beginning. I start again and again and again, because ‘The End’ exists only in the movies.

In addition to piano, Muti studied composition and, of course, conducting. His conducting teacher was Antonino Votto, who had been the right hand of Arturo Toscanini. At the first lesson, Votto taught you how to beat time, says Muti. Then he said how important it was to study music through and through. You would later find your own ways of communicating with an orchestra.

“I was a good pianist,” says Muti, “but I was too nervous when I performed, and I did not want to spend my life sitting at a keyboard in front of a wall.” He became Maestro Muti.

These days, he says, people become conductors all too easily, without sufficient training or depth. “It’s a disaster,” he says. “Somebody plays the flute, and the next day he starts to conduct.” This problem is especially felt in the opera house, he says.

I ask him about familiar music – ultra-familiar music, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Tchaikovsky’s. Is it still a privilege to conduct these works, after a lifetime on the podium? A great one, answers Muti. “You go more deeply into the score and you love it more. The horizon widens. Every piece, I restudy from the beginning. I start again and again and again, because ‘The End’ exists only in the movies.”

He also acquires new copies of familiar scores, free of his previous markings. The late maestro Otto Klemperer did the same, says Muti. You want a virgin score, to look at music afresh. “Mozart said that music lies between the notes,” Muti observes. It is the conductor’s job – any musician’s job – to find the music between the notes.

One of Muti’s non-musical features has been his hair – a great, enviable, much-commented-upon head of hair. Call it “la forza del destino,” he says with a chuckle. (La Forza del Destino, or “The Force of Destiny,” is the title of a Verdi opera.) He does not fuss with his hair, he says. It is cut by a simple barber. And, no matter what people claim, it’s natural. It is what it is.

In his career, this mane has been both “croce e delizia,” says Muti, both cross and delight – a mixed blessing. (That is a line from another Verdi opera, La Traviata.)

Years ago, I asked Maestro Lorin Maazel about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were “Thank God for China.” Muti sympathises with this sentiment. In East Asia, he says, they believe in Western culture practically more than we do in the West. We must not take for granted what we have, he cautions.

I raise the subject of pop music. “In music with a capital M,” he says, “there is no distinction” – no distinction between the classical and the popular. He notes that some pop songs touch the heart and live forever: Volare, for example (by Domenico Modugno). And “some symphonies, it is better to burn.” Muti admires Céline Dion, the Canadian pop singer. And he quotes the Bible: There is a time for everything, including all sorts of music. Sometimes you need one thing, another time another.

He always needs Mozart, he says. “You can conduct him every night.” And Beethoven, “almost every night.” Tchaikovsky, “maybe two times a week – not because he is less important but because you need more time to rest. You don’t want to get overexcited.”

Riccardo Muti has been at the top of the conducting heap for a long time. “But, in a way, I remain provincial as a person,” he says. “After the last note of every concert or opera I conduct, I go back to being the normal person from the south of Italy. Every time, it’s a sort of miracle that I am able to conduct an orchestra.”