Congratulations on your new appointment as Music Director Designate at Orchestre National d’Île-de-France! How’s it going?
Well, being more in the office is very different to my normal living-breathing-on-the-podium life! But we’re working on programmes and ideas for 2013-14 and it’s very exciting to be exploring new repertoire, new artists, new ideas; to stop and make reflections on what we want to say. This is such a special orchestra because it also has a touring mission, to bring music not just to Paris but to all the Île-de-France.
Does that mission pose its own challenges and rewards?
We have to find a good balance between familiar repertoire and making interesting programmes. In one way, the public of course wants very well known pieces but I also want to look for something new to give them. So we are doing two complete cycles – Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, and Beethoven’s piano concerti [with Cédric Tiberghien], which is if you like a sort of seduction, but I’m also launching a new composition competition for all the conservatoire students in Île-de-France. Hopefully this will engage the interest of the greater public in new music!
You once told me that if were you ever to take charge of an orchestra you would make it a priority to shake up the concert-going experience and open it up to as wide an audience as possible – is that still important to you?
Yes of course! The ‘Concert’ is a rite, a tradition, you know – people think, I dress up in my best and I go to a concert. In some ways I don’t think it’s easy to change in the public that idea. But I am always thinking how to address this question! Recently, for example, I invented a Wagner soirée that is more like a symphonic opera, in three parts with two breaks, and each piece is introduced by a radio presenter in a very informal, non-pedagogical way. I always try to give the audience a sense of the dramaturgy – if the concert is a show, let’s really do a show!
Does this become even more important, given the orchestra’s almost ambassadorial touring role across the region?
Yes, because I think the role of the orchestra is not only to bring music to the concert hall. If I had a dream it would be to bring music all over Paris – to the hospitals, schools and all over the banlieues and areas where there are no concerts – to help the orchestra to be really near the public. It’s a big responsibility but the orchestra is very receptive to these ideas. They’re used to traveling all over France and they’re very open-minded and generous. That’s what makes this one different from so many other orchestras. It has a very strong identity and I like this; it is not simply an orchestra like any other, merely doing a concert on a Saturday night and worrying about selling more or less tickets. Its whole identity is about participating and sharing. And this is not just an idea, it is a mission: to bring music everywhere.
You’re about to make your debut in Tokyo with Don Giovanni – excited?
Very excited! It’ll be at the New National Theatre with the Tokyo Philharmonic. I’m very happy to be going to Japan at such a very beautiful time – the sakura, cherry blossom season; it is a present of life! I have a lot of Japanese friends and this is for me a way to be near them around the anniversary of last year’s tragedy; to share a beautiful moment of being together. I’m also trying to bring to Japan my Italian way of reading Mozart. We Italians often say that Mozart wrote Italian opera – I’m sure this offends Austrians, but it’s nothing to do with nationality. He was one of the first truly European musicians. He spent his childhood in Italy; Italian was one of his daily languages. And I recognize that in myself: I am a European citizen, I travel all the time, share the quotidienneté of different cultures, united in big ideas.
So how does this find its way into your interpretation?
Through the text I try to give a warmer, Latin reading of Don Giovanni. This type of character is a libertine, in some way very individualist, and he has some very typical traits of Southern Europeans! I have a big respect for the role of Don Giovanni; in some way I deeply understand him. Of course I don’t lead his life! But this sort of crazy challenge to yourself, challenging the things that are against you rather than running away from them – there is a kind of Latin arrogance in that, but I think it’s a good arrogance. This thinking that you can do everything like a young teenager, this energy, this needing to love and be loved. It all feels very southern and Latin to me!
Your season also includes, among many other things, Falstaff at Deutsche Oper Berlin and Don Pasquale at Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. Will opera always be as important to you as orchestral music?
Yes of course, opera is one of the main parts of my work. In general I am focusing my repertoire more towards Mozart and the first bel canto period; Rossini and early romanticism. I feel there is a stronger bridge through the classicism of late Mozart and young Rossini – this way of smiling through the opera, a common route, a common way. I feel really good with this repertoire and many of my future projects are actually around this period: coming up I have La Sonnambula, Tancredi, a new Cenerentola, La scala di seta…
Will you be making opera a priority in your new position at Orchestre National d’ Île-de-France?
Our work will be concentrated more on the symphonic repertoire, but I have committed to doing at least one opera per year, even if in concert. And they like this idea very much - they like it, they are very happy. I am very happy!
We’ve talked before about your sense of the importance of humanitas in music-making; who is your greatest inspiration?
Oh, la la. Big question! [Pauses.] I think inspirations, to be sincere, must be something lived, something that belongs to your life. It needs to be concrete. I have to say that one of my greatest inspirations is Claudio Abbado because I lived this inspiration and experience. The first opera I sang when I entered the children’s chorus at La Scala was Berg’s Wozzeck. Abbado was looking for a child soloist, he auditioned all of us. I had only joined two days before, but he picked me for the role. The poor child sings right at the end of the opera, so I was attending all the rehearsals and performances. I sat absolutely fascinated in front of the monitor that shows the conductor. I was six or seven, it was my first opera, I was in the dark of offstage, watching Abbado conducting by heart. And that was the life inspiration – that was the moment that moved the engine, if you like, to the energy I have today.
How does Abbado enshrine this quality?
For me, humanitas in music is about sharing ideas with people; always concentrating on creating the best, being demanding but never arrogant. A musician who is ready to open a theatre to the people who are not used to going, or have not the money to buy a ticket. When I was growing up, Abbado was conducting concerts for poor workers and students. That sent a very strong message. At that time I was not able to fully understand it, perhaps, but today I see what an open mind he has; a really strong view of the social reasons why making music is important.
What’s on your iPod?
Oh, many versions of the music I’m exploring – maybe twenty different versions! And a lot of Italian pop music. Currently I’m listening to the latest San Remo Song Festival line-up. Seriously! [laughs]. No, but I’m curious about everything. I listen to everything.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Jorge Amado’s Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars. And I just finished Pasolini’s Ragazzi di Vita, about post-war life in the suburbs of Rome. I like the element of social research.
Who’d be your dream dinner party guests?
O mamma mia! I have always been very curious about Kennedy & Marilyn Monroe…
Montepulciano. It’s a little difficult to say, of course, because now I am moving to Paris and I do feel very much at home here. But Italy, oh, it’s the warmth of the atmosphere; I dream of the views, the weather. It’s still home. My olive trees, they really need me.
© Clemency Burton-Hill
Orchestre National d’Île-de-France
New National Theatre, Tokyo
Don Giovanni performances on 19, 22, 24, 27 and 29 April 2012.