A Bumper Crop of Italian Maestros: Part II

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Editor's Note: Italian conductors are playing an important role in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera these days. In Part I of this two-part post, we learned that in the coming season, of the 22 conductors on the roster, there are six Italians and two more with Italian roots. 

Nicola Luisotti is the music director of San Francisco Opera. He conducts in leading theaters and helmed last season’s excellent Met revival of La Fanciulla del West with Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani. Riccardo Frizza will be conducting Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at San Francisco Opera this fall. He led Rossini’s Armida at the Met. Evelino Pidò has been a favored conductor for artists such as Angela Gheorghiu, Natalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna. Alberto Veronesi has had an important association with the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago and is gradually succeeding Eve Queler at the Opera Orchestra of New York. He will conduct Adriana Lecouvreur with Angela Gheorghiu at Carnegie Hall on November 8.

On the horizon is Trieste’s Leonardo Vordoni, the husband of Joyce DiDonato. He did some of his early work on the music staff at the Met and now conducts often all over North America. Daniele Rustioni, born 1983, recently conducted Cherubini’s Medea at Glimmerglass. He studied with Leif Segerstam and Noseda. Francesco Cilluffo is a composer as well as a conductor who already has had a string of successes in his young career and is someone to watch.

I know you are wondering about Antonio Pappano, who is to London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden what James Levine is to the Met. He is not Italian, though his parents were. He grew up in England and America and combines the practicality and pragmatism of those countries with many of the attributes -- precision, passion, a keen sense of language and drama -- that characterize Italian conductors.

On the Shoulders of Giants

I believe that we have so many fine Italian and Italianate conductors because they follow a great generation of maestros who not only performed but taught. In talking about Italian conductors, we must always start with Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), the prototype of what we think of whenever we think of a maestro any kind. Friend to Verdi, Puccini and all the Italian composers of his time, he became an advocate for their music and connected the image of Italy to opera for all who would follow. He also set the standard of the authoritarian maestro who is a surrogate for the composer, there to be responsible for all musical elements of the performance. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Italian wing of the Met was headed by Toscanini while the German wing was captained by Gustav Mahler!

Because of his relationship with the Met a century ago and later with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony, Toscanini laid down much of the musical DNA in New York that came to influence all of America. Toscanini was revolutionary in many ways, one of them being that he was as proficient in Wagner and Beethoven as he was in Verdi. In so doing, he set the tone for two types of Italian conductors: the internationalist (Luisi, Noseda) and the Italianist (Armiliato, Luisotti).

Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was only slightly less renowned than Toscanini. He worked at La Scala and the Met, made superb recordings and led countless performances of forgotten works that he endeavored to return to the repertory. In this, he had the ideal collaborator in Maria Callas, who  came to him as a very young singer. The maestro recognized in her the potential to bring back bel canto repertory that had been lost. Serafin, clearly an Italianist, was an outstanding teacher and devoted more time to cultivating new singers than anyone else. If we think of the glory years of Italian opera in the post-war era, it is thanks to Tullio Serafin.

Another pivotal conductor was Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who lived from 1909 to 1996 and was a fixture in Italian opera houses for decades. He was particularly admired in Milan where conductor Gianandrea Noseda was born in 1964 and was named for the older maestro. On nights when the Milan public did not hear Serafin, they often had the pleasure of Gavazzeni. 

Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was one of the greatest conductors of his time, but has been too quickly forgotten. I defy you not to be blown away by his superb conducting of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, not just for his dramatic physicality but for the results he achieves. He had a long relationship with the Chicago Symphony and also led the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With that company he did a remarkable Falstaff in 1982 that helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Los Angeles Opera in 1986. I think his 1971 recording of Don Carlo with Domingo, Caballé and Verrett is the best overall. While he was superb in Italian repertory, Giulini also excelled in a broad range of styles. Many people think his recordings of the four Mahler symphonies are hard to top.

And then there are the two Italian conducting gods of today, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti. Abbado (1933-) was in charge at La Scala when I worked there in the late 1970s and, along with Leonard Bernstein before and James Levine since, did more to shape my conception of what music should sound like and how we perceive it. He was tipped to take over the New York Philharmonic in 1989 but, when Herbert von Karajan died, Abbado preferred the Berlin Philharmonic. I always think of what could have been with Abbado at Lincoln Center, leading the NYP to greatness and conducting occasionally at the Met. I have discussed Muti (1941-) often on this blog and he continues to flourish, especially in Chicago and Salzburg.

So why then do we have so many fine Italian conductors today? I believe that Italy continues to produce outstanding musicians in families that are keepers of the musical flame. With audio and video resources and printed scores, young musicians are able to explore the repertory on their own. There still is enough one-to-one transmission of knowledge in private classes and conservatories from Milan to Palermo, where the Bellini conservatory has several orchestras available for the education of young conductors. In addition, young Italian conductors have learned from their predecessors that it is necessary to find a mentor -- a maestro of their own -- and that person can often be found abroad. Luisi went to the German-speaking world and Noseda went to St. Petersburg. 

Another prominent example is Riccardo Chailly (1953-) who studied with his conductor father and, at age 20, became an assistant to Abbado at La Scala. He spends much time in northern European cities such as Amsterdam, Leipzig and London. Although he has a low profile in America (he conducted a new Met production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 1982 but has never been back), he maintains a presence in Italy and is primarily an international conductor. Very few conductors from any country will scale the Olympian model of Abbado and Muti, but can have full, enriching careers following their own paths. Chailly, Luisi, Armiliato and Noseda are fine examples of this.

I hope they all remember that people took time for them and, if the great Italian tradition -- especially operatic -- is to be continued, it is incumbent upon them to not only teach young conductors but also impart to singers the culture, values, repertory, musical and linguistic details, and the passione italiana that remains unextinguished, at least among conductors.

Weigh in: Who is your favorite Italian conductor? Please leave your comments below.