You’re a 27-year-old Venezuelan about to take over at one of Italy’s - and indeed Europe’s - most legendary opera houses, La Fenice. Congratulations!
Thank you! I am so excited. La Fenice is such a special place. It’s a very particular theatre and the orchestra has a unique energy. And just to be in Venice, you have this wonderful, amazing, beautiful city as your home and I think that sense of energy and life is also part of the theatre because of its history of being destroyed and reconstructed. It’s a really, really beautiful place to be.
What have you got planned?
The first two operas I will conduct are Rigoletto and La Traviata. They were the first operas I ever saw when I was a teenager in Caracas, and for me it was such a special moment. I am in love with these operas, I’m studying like crazy but I feel very comfortable with them. The first ever performance of La Traviata was at La Fenice so that is very special too.
How do you bring a fresh approach to an orchestra that know this repertoire so well?
Of course the orchestra of La Fenice can probably play any work of Verdi or Puccini in their sleep! But they want to do things differently - that’s clear in the fact they chose me as Principal Conductor. And I’ve been thinking a lot recently about taking risks. For example, sometimes you rehearse something and then, in a concert, you get a special feeling and know you need to do it in another way. When you get the attention of the orchestra and they follow and take that risk with you - it’s amazing, completely beautiful. Of course it doesn’t always work but I am there for four years and we will take many risks together and go on this journey together. It’s exciting.
What else is on the horizon?
I’m conducting the New Year concert at Teatro La Fenice - a programme of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and popular opera overtures and arias which will be televised after the Pope’s speech. So it’s a very important occasion; there is a huge audience!
Will you approach the New Year concert differently to regular concerts?
Of course we are talking about a special event with a particular atmosphere - even to the way the flowers are arranged in the theatre! But they are very great orchestra and they always play with energy and sense of occasion. I don’t think they will play differently just because it’s on TV.
Television has the potential to reach people who may not usually make it to the classical concert hall - is that sense of reach and accessibility important to you?
Of course - it’s wonderful to have these concerts on TV, especially now. In Italy they have this amazing mix of art, architecture, painting and music but right now they are really having a difficult moment, politically and even musically. To me Italy is my second home, I am very committed to giving Italy my best, because people here have opened so many doors for me. I spend more time in Italy even than in Caracas. I will do everything I can to bring more people to music.
How did El Sistema shape you as a musician?
I was born into Sistema, it’s in my blood, it was the most important thing in my life and is still very important. One of my ideas is to try and create something like Sistema at La Fenice. That is a dream especially because Maestro Abreu [founder of El Sistema] loves Venice, so it would almost be a present for him to create that there! Venice deserves a great youth orchestra with a social impact - they deserve it and if I have the possibility to do it, I would love to help.
Who are your greatest influences?
I feel like I have two angels who influence me, and from whom I have learned so much and am still learning. Maestro Abreu is like my father; I learned everything from him. But Maestro Claudio Abbado also treated me like his son. He really believed in me, opened many doors for me. He is a beautiful person, not just musically but in his soul which is to me the most important thing.
Why is soul so important to you?
For me music is about humanity, and what matters most is your soul. If you play an instrument without soul you hear notes, but there is no message. It’s a horrible mistake to think you can simply play. When people do this without soul or love - when they just play, get into a routine, it’s over. The music dies. A musician without soul is not a musician.
For many years, you studied violin as your principal instrument - why were you drawn to conducting?
One day in Caracas I had a meeting with Maestro Abreu to talk about the future. I was expecting to discuss solo performances and chamber music but he mentioned conducting, he said ‘Come to me tomorrow, I will give you your first lesson.’ And that was that: my life changed completely, from one day to the next.
So it was a sort of coup de foudre! How do you feel about conducting now?
I’m in a very special moment of my musical life because I have to learn many new pieces, symphonies, operas and everything, so I am discovering all the time. I’ve played much of this repertoire on the violin, but it’s not the same. It’s so romantic - I become so in love, when I discover all these pieces. I’m addicted!
What’s your ultimate musical dream?
I have so many dreams, but I think it would be... to be 80 years old and doing exactly what I am doing.
What piece of advice would you give to a young person dreaming of becoming a musician or conductor?
Study, study, study, study, study… That’s the secret! And go to Venezuela. Our doors are open!
© Clemency Burton-Hill
Teatro La Fenice