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Riccardo Chailly, the new Conductor of Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw Orchestra, talks with Barbara Jahn.
On September 1, 1988. the [then-] 35-year-old Riccardo Chailly officially became the fifth Conductor (and the first non-Dutchman) to take Charge off the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I was lucky enough to speak to him on that day and despite the momentous responsibilities and commitments ahead of him, he was full of enthusiasm.
BJ: You are still with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra after six years, you are Musical Director of the Teatro Communale di Bologna...
RC: Yes, I have been with them for three years and have just renewed my appointment there for the next three years.
BJ: . ..and now you are Chief Conductor of the Concertgebouw.
RC: Yes, although I officially took over today, I’ve been very busy with them for the past two years.
BJ: And you took them on tour in May.
RC: Yes, a major European tour and that formed a very important bond in our musical relation ship. They played fantastically well—I was so pleased about that.
BJ: When did Bernard Haitink actually leave the Concertgebouw?
RC: I think it was about one and a half years ago, and for that interim period I was asked to anticipate my period as chief conductor as much as I could. So I gave a lot of unscheduled time, to keep close to the orchestra and to work on new repertoire. They didn’t want me to appear in Amsterdam and then disappear for six months, so I had to balance these demands with my other work. Fortunately, I succeeded and I find I have now done a lot of the back ground work and we’ve got together some thing like 40 different symphonic programs.
BJ: Was it difficult to break Bernard Haitink c mold after 26 years?
RC: Well, it wasn’t a question of breaking, but a willingness to continue.
BJ: But your style is very different.
RC: Yes, absolutely. We are different personalities, as all conductors are. But the idea was to continue the tradition arrived at after 100 years, especially with the Romantic repertoire. But there is a great willingness to allow new light into the repertoire—there was not enough emphasis on avant garde music or Italian and French music, so I wanted to accent those three areas of the repertoire. Avant-garde is the most difficult and the one we must work the hardest on. It is a very, very demanding project.
BJ: You’ve made a number of recordings of 20th-century music particularly Stravinsky
RC: Yes, and we have moved on to Berio; there is a recording in October of Formazioni which Berio wrote for the Concertgebouw.
BJ: I hadn’t realized that.
RC: Yes, it was premiered a year ago. It is a major symphonic piece.
BJ: Looking at your list of Stravinsky recordings—The Rake’s Progress, Le Sacre, Sym phony of Psalms, Le Chant du Rossignol, Le Baiser de la fee, and so on—are you trying to create a revival of interest in his music?
RC: Yes, I do believe very much in Stravinsky’s music. The London Sinfonietta was wonderful in The Rake’s Progress, and the other disc of smaller pieces. My activity with the Concertgebouw is to present Stravinsky in general; we did a tour with Le Sacre—it is one of the most incredible showpieces for orchestra and, in a way, the masterpiece of this century
BJ: Do you feel that since Stravinsky’s death there has been something of a decline in interest in his music?
RC: It really depends on the country In Italy and Holland he is very highly regarded, but not played enough. So next season we will perform Le Chant du Rossignol, a masterpiece which has been completely dropped from the major repertoire.
BJ: What do you think of Robert Craft’s recordings of Stravinsky?
RC: Very technical and, in a way cynical, cold readings. I admire them for their clarity and faithfulness; I see the presence of someone who has been next to the composer, and who therefore knows exactly what the composer wants, but I don’t see an interpreter there. That is not the case when Stravinsky himself is con ducting; you feel not only the genius of the composer but a great personality
BJ: So what do you put into Stravinsky when you conduct?
RC: In certain repertoire I like a lyrical as well as a late Romantic piece with great moments of neo-classicismo. I also like to underline, in pieces like Le Sacre, the frantic side of the rhythm, and the modernity of scores like Le Chant do Rossignol—this neo-impressionismo. It is almost post-Debussyian in the color of the orchestra. The early piece, L’oiseau dufeu, needs a special color, and later pieces like Movements for piano and orchestra demand a completely different, more abstract sense of color.
BJ: And when you conduct the Concertgebouw what kind of color do you look for there: blended strings, pastoral woodwind—or does this change with the work?
RC: When I stand on the podium I am facing the Concertgebouw sound. It is a very clearly determined sound that is the consequence of 100 years’ legend. Therefore I try to follow that instinctive kiang, although I can underline the warmth of the strings, and ask for more darkness in the lower strings in the Cello Concerto of Shostakovich, for instance. But, in general, the woodwinds have that unique, spectacular Netherlands School sound and technique. The woodwind players have an incredibly strong personality too—you notice it as soon as there is a solo coming through, and the flautist has a wooden flute which gives a unique color and combines so well with the other wooden instruments. But there is a stable, absolutely equal quality to all the orchestral groups in this orchestra—you can’t say which is the best. Mengelberg for 50 years, Van Beinum for 14, Haitink for 26, and there was of course Kes, the first chief conductor. This is something you feel—you have the benefit of 100 years of fantastic work.
BJ: Will it be Riccardo Chailly for 25 years too?
RC: I don’t know, I’ve never thought of that. But I feel a great orchestra consists of fine players and a conductor who is associated with them for a longtime. You could call it special, unique luck that Holland had only Dutch conductors for 100 years who were really good. It is easy to say I want a national conductor to follow a national tradition, but it is still luck. In Italy we have had, and still have, phenomenal conductors, but we’ve never had the case of an orchestra that was kept for 100 years only by Italian conductors. To keep all that talent in one place is the secret of the Concertgebouw’s wonderful tradition.
When I was in Berlin it was the opposite feeling, because after the 15 years of Fricsay, there were some years with Lorin Maazel who kept the standard very high, then they were six and a half years without a chief conductor. So when I arrived I had to start from the beginning, because the orchestra was in a state of mental disease. They’d lost their bonhomie because they’d lost their repertoire, they’d lost their prestige, they’d lost their recording image. Everything had collapsed in six and half years. Therefore I had to work like crazy; I had to give them an identity, internationally speaking, by tours and recordings.
BJ: Do Radio Symphony Orchestras have more rehearsal time?
RC: Yes. We had a weekly program, which meant five to seven rehearsals. The Concertgebouw has about half that.
BJ: So that helped you when you took over Berlin.
RC: It did. To develop the repertoire, and give time to assimilate, think about, and correct myself. I could never have accepted the Concertgebouw without eight years in Berlin. That was the basis of my career.
BJ: it must be a great privilege to be Principal Conductor of the Concertgebouw after a succession of Dutch conductors.
RC: I think so, definitely.
BJ: How did that come about?
RC: Just by luck, really. I went there in January 1985, completely unaware of what was going on with Haitink—I was absolutely mentally virgin in that respect. So I think that was the reason for my success. I was there as guest conductor, pleased to be facing a great orchestra, with three different programs in two weeks: an avant-garde program, a Russian program, and an American/Italian evening. I had the opportunity to show them many different types of repertoire. For me it was a great time, completely without any stress, which some times happens when you are facing a really first-class orchestra.
BJ: Was their response to you good?
RC: It was extraordinary from the beginning. And I started in a most unpopular way. The debut concert was on the 5th (or 6th) of January, a full avant-garde concert of Italian music: Berio, Petrassi, and Bussotti. So it was the most difficult way to start a relationship with a great orchestra. But they worked wonderfully. The only problem was we had 200 people in the audience instead of 2000! I’ll never forget walking out of the door and down those famous stairs to the platform in the Concertgebouw to see just a small group of people.
BJ: Because it was a concert of 20th-century music?
RC: Yeah, exactly.
BJ: So you needed to educate the audience too?
RC: Well, this was a shock. They did not under stand avant-garde music and maybe it wasn’t well advertised. Possibly in the past they were given bad avant-garde music, but that was a very interesting program.
BJ: Was the orchestra happy to play it?
RC: Yeah, yeah. They were very engaged by it, and over the following two years we worked very hard on it. I was appointed Chief Conductor in June ’85, and things moved so fast in those months. Since then I’ve had a lot of meetings with the Artistic Committee of the orchestra and its manager to make things better, and this year the C series is completely full. You see, we changed its structure; we’ve called it “Picasso,” and we’ve combined avant-garde music with the major masterpieces of this century. So, for example, we did Formazioni in the first half and Le Sacre du Printemps in the second, and the concert was completely sold out.
BJ: Which is the most expensive Series? That must surely reflect the audience ‘5 preference?
RC: I think it’s the A Series, with Romantic and late-Romantic music. It’s the most traditional program: Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann.
BJ: I’ve heard your Dvorak 9 and Brahms 1 and I love the drama and tension in them. Again, your approach is very different from Haitink ‘5, so what is the audience’s reaction to you?
RC: So far, staggering! I don’t like to say that though, I would rather you came along to see it for yourself. You would immediately under stand the temperature around my music-making in Amsterdam. But yes, I am a very different musician and personality from Bernard Haitink, and maybe that’s why I have been so well accepted. You see, in Amsterdam the decision is completely democratic—the orchestra, not the management, chooses the chief conductor. Their votes were made in three different periods over six months.
BJ: And you were chosen on the basis of your appearances as guest conductor?
BJ: It must feel wonderful to go to an orchestra knowing that they really want you.
RC: To come Out with the m of votes from 120 people—you must understand what that means, especially as the only other competitor left in the final with me (and I don’t want to say who that was) is one of the greatest conductors in the world. So it was even more flattering for me.
BJ: But won’t it sap your energies being in charge of three orchestras?
RC: Yes. Therefore I do intend to stop, in June 1989, the RSO Berlin because I simply mentally and physically can’t do that too. It is really far too much to be chief conductor to three orchestras. I extended, by a year, my stay with the RSO Berlin because Ashkenazy cannot start with them until September ‘89, and they really did not want a gap after the trauma they had when Maazel left. So I’ve kept the title as a sign of friendship and trust, but I have reduced my sea son with them by one half. But even doing four weeks only is not easy because in Amsterdam I have a contract for 14—16 weeks a year, and I must make recordings too.
BJ: And in Bologna?
RC: The opening season is opera for two months, then two to three weeks of symphony concerts and one recording per year. That’s never obligatory, but there is a willingness between myself and Decca to produce Italian opera recordings there; so we did Macbeth, and just recently Manon. The way Carreras sings in Acts 3 and 4 of Manon is unbelievable. He told me it is his favorite recording; he is very pleased with his singing and interpretation, and he is right. He is always good, but what he did in those two acts is frightening! The sense of drama!
BJ: We’ve heard a lot about the acoustical properties of the Concertgebouw Hall when it is full and when it is empty. How have you found it?
RC: Mengelberg used to have a big curtain behind his back facing the orchestra to mute the sound when he rehearsed, and we do that sometimes, especially when they remove chairs for a recording because then there is even more echo from the wooden floor. It is sometimes difficult to listen for details from the podium; more so than from the audience.
BJ: What about when you are recording? I’ve just heard Bernard Haitink‘s last recording with the Concertgebouw of the Beethoven Symphonies, and here Volker Straus from Philips was multi- miking so that he could adjust’ the sound to more accurately represent the received sound heard in the hail when full. What is the Decca technique?
RC: Not multi-miking. Since digital recording they use two microphones above the head of the conductor to balance the sound of the whole orchestra. There are additional microphones for special close effects with, say, the percussion. But no microphone for the brass, and I think in Dvorak 9, if I remember well, one microphone for the woodwind. But so few microphones it was absolutely frightening. It is mainly done with those two above my head, and there is no rebalancing, as when remastering tapes. We have to produce the sound we want at the performance. The major danger is that if you lose concentration for a moment, the balance or some details that you want are lost. Later on you are stuck, you cannot get it back.
BJ: Isn’t that like giving a concert performance though?
RC: No, it’s different because the position of the orchestra is not a normal symphony con cert position. In Amsterdam we have the brass on the right side of the stage. When we re corded in the parterre, when the chairs have been removed, we separate horns on the left and the rest of the brass on the right. The horns need much more space than the trumpets and trombones; if they were all together you would have a very thick, woolly, emphatic sound. Separated, there is a more transparent quality, but it makes it harder for the orchestra to balance itself; so the conductor has to control that because Decca says, “If you want more detail from the horns or bassoon, you must do it there and then. Don’t ask us to balance here and there.” And there’s always a conflict; I would love, as I did before with the stereo system, to have one finger on the recording con sole to alter that balance. With the digital system, Decca categorically refuses to do that, and I think they are right; the sound is better, more wide-ranging—but it is much harder for the conductor.
BJ: Your musical education began with the study of composition. Do you think that’s why you have a great empathy with 20th-century music?
RC: My father was my first teacher; he is still alive, and he is a very well-known Italian com poser. So he was my mentor in music, and he was very severe, I tell you. It was a very old- fashioned education I got—he taught me the first four years of my education in just four months. Those four months are fixed here in my mind, like a shock. He wanted to give me the heaviest and most thorough basis, and he succeeded, but it was so demanding. After that I went to the Conservatory Guiseppe Verdi in Milan with Bruno Bettinelli, who was the leading teacher of composition. So I’ve followed avant-garde music very much since I studied composition. I have a great admiration for the sister of Claudio Abbado, Luciana, who for more than ten years has been head of a series in Milan called Musica di Nostro Tempo that is only devoted to avant-garde music, using the four orchestras we have in Milan: La Scala, the Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the two Chamber Orchestras. I grew up with that, and Claudio Abbado was an active figure there (when he was Chief Conductor of La Scala), doing important things with Stockhausen, Nono, and Berio. In October I premiere Concerto Grosso No.4 of Schnittke, that we at the Concertgebouw commissioned, and we’ll keep doing those kind of things regularly.
BJ: Do you still compose?
RC: No, I never did. My father’s more than enough because he’s very good, and as a com poser I was a disaster—no creative side at all. It was a cold consequence of a good study; it was just technical.
BJ: So what exactly did your father teach you?
RC: The harmonies and counterpoint of the former Classics, and I had to compose a Romance for piano, a Scena Lyrica for voice and orchestra. But he was extremely severe in counterpoint—very thorough and persistent. Rightly enough, because when I conducted Bach (I’ve been conducting for 20 years), and the last movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter,” I remembered my father’s lessons; I’ll never have words enough to thank him for making me learn the fugal formula and construction so well.
BJ: I believe you studied conducting at the Conservatoire. Is there great value in that?
RC: Very much. As a professional I believe you cannot learn—you must be born a conductor —but you need to be told what to do with your arms; you must be instructed how to beat. Without that you cannot really consider yourself a conductor. You can be an instinctive conductor, but technique is the basis on which you can develop your own way. I studied with Piero Guarino who gave me the ABCs, and then with Franco Caracciola in Milan, who was the most important technical teacher. The summer courses I did for three years in Sienna with Franco Ferrara were most impressive for the interpretation of music He was the most gifted Italian conductor (together with Toscanini). He would not teach technique, only music.
BJ: Which conductors did you aspire to?
RC: He was one of my long-term idols, with Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, and my Italian men tor since I was very young was Claudio Abbado. He made me his assistant in La Scala, then engaged me regularly each season after that as a guest conductor. My idols from the past are Toscanini, Bruno Walter for Brahms and Mahler, and I have an enormous admiration for two British conductors: one I consider in some ways the best Mahler conductor—Sir John Barbirolli—he had a unique gift. Another I admired very much was Sir Thomas Beecham, especially with his recordings of Boheme and Carmen.
BJ: You have conducted a great deal of opera. Do you think of yourself primarily as an opera conductor, or a symphonic conductor?
RC: I think one completes and is a fulfillment of the other. Of the two I think opera conducting is the most complete, because it is a unity of all the elements. The symphonic concert is a spectacular event for the conductor, but it is not as complete.
BJ: I’ve beard two different opinions. Some conductors find opera easier, because there is more rehearsal time. Others say it is more difficult because there is so much to think about at once. What do you feel?
RC: I think if you are a born conductor, with all your technique in order, the symphony concert is difficult for musical reasons, but opera conducting is far more complex for its numerous problems. Also, with symphony concerts, you make your own interpretation, you realize your own wishes. In opera it is a daily com promise with the vocal aspect, it is a constant combination of willingness and compromise. If you cannot compromise then you better not even start thinking of being an opera conductor.
BJ: Why are so many young Italian conductors expected to be able to cope with opera? Is it purely the Italian vocal tradition?
RC: Yeah, and the amount of repertoire we have in that respect. There is a new way with the new generation of conductors to start in the old-fashioned way—in the pit as a prompter, and up eventually to the podium. My generation, in the ‘70s, felt the major thing was to be a symphonic conductor. I started with opera as a consequence of the nature of my country, but it was not my first aim; my major aim was symphonic, as with Claudio Abbado, my great friend. But the idea was always to do both.
BJ: What are your future recording plans?
RC: With the Concertgebouw, first the Berio, which will be a very big shock for the lovers of the Concertgebouw tradition in terms of recording direction; everyone is expecting a program of Mahler, but I’ll do Bruckner 4 and start with Mahler much farther into the future, He is well taken care of in the hands of Leonard Bernstein and more recent conductors like Haitink, who is one of my favorite conductors for late Mahler. Then there will be Schumann’s Symphony I, and we’ve just recorded Schumann 4, and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto 1 with Ronald Brautigam, a staggering new talent from Holland. We are all sure he will go a long way; we will couple that with the Shostakovich Cello Concerto 2 with Lynn Harrell. Then we’ll record the Overtures of a Dutch Romantic composer, Wagenaar. He is sort of a combination of Strauss and late Verdi in his approach to orchestral scoring. It was very popular at the time of Mengelberg—he did all those Overtures, but then Van Beinum and Haitink never performed them. So for 50 years he has been forgotten.
BJ: Do you like to record cycles of works? I know you have a few Bruckner symphonies under way, and now two of Schumann’s.
RC: As long as it’s not a pre-ordered project. If it is, I’ am obsessed before I start and I probably will not take it on. If I know I can approach it as I want, when I feel ready, and not be pushed, then I think there will be a cycle. For instance, with Schumann, it will be a long time before we feel we are ready to record the next ones. Everything is a consequence of my music-making. Cycles are not the principle to go for—that is a big mistake. There, I must say, Decca is a great partner; I have done five years and have just renewed for another five, and I’ve never once felt forced to do something because it’s commercial. I have made commercial and noncommercial recordings, like the Zemlinsky. BJ: Yes, those recordings are very welcome in the catalog.
RC: Decca respected my wishes to make them, and now Symphony 2 with Psalm 23 is coming on the market with the Berlin Radio. There will be more later; Decca is happy to discuss with me the repertoire I’d like to do. With Bruckner, I’ve recorded 1, 3, and 7 with the Berlin Radio; if I do complete the cycle it will probably be with different orchestras!
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