When Opera Orchestras Take a Busman's Holiday

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MILAN—What do opera orchestras do on their nights off? They might engage in any number of things that most workers would. But some of them prefer to spend even more of their busy lives together performing symphonic repertory or chamber music. There are numerous explanations for this but I think the basic one is that musicians like to make music. Almost every musician I know says that engagement with music—whether it is study, rehearsal or performance—makes them feel good.

I was reminded of this while attending a performance here by the Filarmonica della Scala on Sunday evening. The program included two works by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) whose name I knew but whose music I had never heard. The orchestra, and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, made a strong case for rediscovering this composer and including his music in concerts by orchestras abroad. More on that in a moment.

Unlike the Met, which hasn’t found much space for Verdi in its 2013-2014 season, the musicians of La Scala have been in rehearsal and performance of Don Carlo (conducted by Fabio Luisi) and Aïda (led by Noseda) in this month that marks the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth. At his home theater, Turin’s Teatro Regio, Noseda is also conducting Simon Boccanegra, already up and running. In fact, this month at the Teatro Regio, they are also doing Rigoletto and La Traviata in addition to Boccanegra. The annual Verdi Festival is taking place in Parma and Busseto, where I Masnadieri and Falstaff (with Renato Bruson) are on tap for this week. Other Italian theaters are presenting works of Verdi this month.

I found it notable that the La Scala musicians were interested in performing more unusual music proposed to them by Noseda when it would have been expected that they would do a concert of Verdi hits, perhaps with a star soloist and the chorus added for a couple of numbers. Instead, the Milan audience heard an evening of music by two early-20th century Italian composers (the concert opened with Ancient Dances and Airs by Ottorino Respighi, 1879-1936) who grew up while Verdi was still alive and the dominant figure of Italian music.

Casella did much of his training and growth abroad, especially in Paris, where he knew the likes of Fauré, Enescu, and Ravel and came into contact with Mahler and Richard Strauss. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was influential on his composing style. He was particularly inspired by Stravinsky and the admiration was mutual. The Russian composer, not given to effusive remarks about colleagues, described Casella as “the first Italian composer to make Italian symphonic music less provincial.” Casella returned the favor by publishing a book about Stravinsky in 1926.

Alfredo Casella (right), like just about every European artist of the early 20th century, seems to have deeply felt the strong political shock waves that happened 100 years ago: the fall of old empires, world war, epidemics, hunger, mass migrations, the rise of new political systems of extreme left and right that offer little that is safe, fair and concrete to real people. Few thinkers and almost no one in the general public talk about these events from a century ago despite the strong parallels to now. I would like to see more creative artists today face these big issues rather than some of the mundane topics they deal with. Perhaps if they put down their digital devices for a month, a bit of original thinking might develop.

Casella wrote ballets, operas, orchestral music (including three symphonies) and more, all to be discovered. He even was, starting in 1927, chief conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for a while. He initiated music programs, worked with literary figures including Gabriele d’Annunzio and was instrumental in creating a revival of interest in the music of Vivaldi in 1939 when he organized a week in Siena dedicated to the exploration of the life and work of the Venetian baroque master.

The other night at La Scala, the musicians performed the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, op.35, (1934) and the Symphony no. 2 in D minor, op. 12 (1908). The excellent soloist in the concerto was Enrico Dindo, who gave the 20-minute piece the right combination of lyricism and exciting virtuoso playing. The symphony, about 55 minutes long, was dazzling. In the absence of words that people could find to explain what it sounded like, they equated some of the music with that of other composers. I found similarities, especially at the start, with Sibelius. Other people I spoke with in the audience noticed Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky and Ravel. The point is that Casella was not copying anyone else but was so original that he has his own composer’s voice, one I would like to get to know better.

Noseda conducted with his customary precision, introspection and kinetic spontaneity and the excellent Scala Filarmonica was in sync with him. I noticed, at the end of the performance, that he bowed deeply to the orchestra and, at the same moment, kissed the score of the symphony.

Which brings me back to the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala. I have found that opera orchestras (including the Met’s) that play outside concerts of symphonic music become better players of opera. They learn more about composers who may or may not have written operas. If La Scala ever does a Casella opera, they will have had this experience with his music already. Even if they do not play composers we think of for opera (Schumann, Brahms, etc), it gives the musicians a versatility and a culture that goes beyond their traditional repertory. 

James Levine understood this phenomenon when he developed the concert programs for Metropolitan Opera musicians, and the ensemble is now as highly regarded for symphonic music as they are for opera. At the New York Philharmonic, maestro Alan Gilbert has introduced more opera, some of it semi-staged, and the results have been outstanding because the orchestra players have shown a virtuosity and excitement for this music that is palpable.

The Filarmonica della Scala was the idea of Claudio Abbado (right), who was music director at La Scala in a golden age in the 1970s and early 1980s. He also worked at the Vienna State Opera for part of that time. The Vienna Philharmonic is the “band” for the State Opera and Abbado noted how their playing of symphonic music gave more texture and character to the way they played opera. If they play symphonies by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, said Abbado, they will be better at playing operas by those composers.

Abbado brought a large group of La Scala musicians to Vienna to discover how this worked and the idea was born to create a similar model in Milan. The statutes of the orchestra for its hiring, compensation and so forth were fashioned after those in Vienna. The Filarmonica della Scala musicians decide when they want to play. Their financial arrangements are a bit different in that this orchestra is a private entity with different sponsorships from those for the opera. They have created an audience for symphonic music in Milan that might not have an interest in opera, which only serves to expand La Scala’s reach.

The Filarmonica had ten concerts at La Scala in its current season, which concluded with Noseda’s performance. Other top conductors at the Filarmonica in these programs included Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Chailly, James Conlon, Valery Gergiev, Daniel Harding and Zubin Mehta. I look forward to hearing the Filarmonica in the future and hope they will tour to other places, especially if they consider doing works by Casella and other 20th Century and contemporary Italian composers.