The art of conducting music comes with the challenge of shaping how some of the finest pieces of Western classical music are presented to a modern audience
I acquired my initial musical education in Milan, my beloved hometown. My journey with Western classical music has, since then, taken me to different corners of the world and has ensured that my musical education is always ongoing. In Milan, I was directly exposed to the work of great conductors like Abbado, Kleiber, Muti and Mehta among many others, and I carry with me everything I learnt from them to this day. It is also true, however, that every time I conduct, I learn something – not only from the score, but also from the musicians in the orchestra and what they bring to the performance. Having been able to conduct so many different orchestras in so many countries has led to an enrichment of my experience and personality, and this is as it should be when people of different backgrounds are given an opportunity to connect with each other.
The art of conducting music today comes with the honour and the challenge of shaping how some of the finest pieces of music ever created are brought forth to the modern audience. As a conductor, my first and last focus is the score. The real act of creation is there – in what the composer has made. Yes, as artists, all conductors reinterpret the original and bring their own ideas to it, but for me the most important inspiration comes from deep study of the score as I try to understand why the composer wrote the piece in the way that he did. I clear my mind and immerse myself in that before all else. With an iconic piece of music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it is more important than ever to be faithful to the score because of the vast number of recordings that already exist, some of which are more a celebration of the ego of the conductor than the genius of the composer. Then, of course, comes the development of the piece with the orchestra – the living, breathing instrument through which a conductor expresses himself. I find it important to note here that every orchestra is different. This is why, when you hear the same piece conducted by the same conductor but with two different orchestras, there are often great differences between the renditions. I have always found this extremely fascinating and also, rewarding. I believe a conductor must be receptive to this, and work creatively to bring out the best qualities of the players he works with.
There is also the question of what it is that one is conducting to begin with – a concert or an opera. There is a tremendous amount of difference between the two tasks, mind you! Technically, opera is more difficult as there are many more elements involved, several factors to be taken into consideration and, frankly, far too much that could go wrong! Singers must be supported, when healthy or ill, the set can cause acoustic problems, there is a natural delay between the orchestra pit and the stage that needs to be addressed and there are, on some occasions, some very unhelpful ideas that directors come up with, which must also be navigated. The conductor presides over and manages all of this over long rehearsal periods while also being acutely aware of the need to present something great at each eventual performance. Working with a great score and a good orchestra towards a concert has its challenges too, undoubtedly, but it is decidedly simpler. And I must admit that both are equally rewarding: what is wonderful is the opportunity to conduct the greatest pages in Western classical music, which are to be found both in the symphonic as well as operatic repertoires.
In opera, I am a great admirer of Gioachino Rossini. His operas are exhilarating to listen to and are as precise as Swiss clockwork! But Rossini is very difficult to conduct, even if his pieces look and sound easy. That, for me, is both the challenge and the inspiration. Rossini, like Mozart and Bach in their time, reached the absolute pinnacle of composing during his period. Some of his operas (both the opera seria and opera buffa) are perfect and like textbooks of music composition. I love conducting Rossini, but I don’t do it too often because usually theatres do not give his masterpieces the necessary preparation time. The Welsh National Opera is among the few companies that do accord Rossini’s pieces the time they need for preparation, and I recently conducted William Tell and the much more rarely performed Mose in Egitto for them.
Besides the work of masters, every musician draws inspiration and feeling from his own life, consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously pouring them into what he creates. Like Rossini, there are many who have inspired me – legendary conductor Carlos Kleiber, for instance. But inspiration can come also from great works of art or literature, from a moving performance by an actor, from a story that a friend tells me or from the view of a beautiful countryside. It can be born, also, from negative or painful feelings – a death, a love that has ended, the suffering of entire populations that are oppressed or at war… And all these experiences, once they have been filtered through the score, come together to communicate myriad emotions through music. A performance that truly moves the audience and the musician is, for me, always preferable to a performance that is technically perfect but detached.