By Richard Scheinin
Q Does this happen often, that individual orchestra members will write to a conductor?
A No, no, this is very rare. It was really an expression of love.
Unfortunately, not long after, at a certain point in the first season I had a problem with arrhythmia of my heart. I fell at the podium, and I had to miss a few weeks. But I’m well now; this was an arrhythmia problem — not a problem of musical rhythm!
Q From the reports I’ve seen, you’re now feeling strong.
A Yes, absolutely.
Q What in your opinion makes the Chicago Symphony so unique?
A I think the orchestra is altogether one of the most beautiful in the world.
One time when I was in Europe, I heard people talk about the famous brass of the Chicago symphony. But now I can hear that all the sections are equally wonderful — fantastic beautiful strings and beautiful woodwinds and beautiful percussion. So the orchestra has the possibility to play all kinds of repertoire, from the baroque music and intimate Schubert to the very powerful music. It’s not an orchestra that has a tendency to play one thing well and one thing not. Thanks to the musicians and the previous music directors, the orchestra has become a very flexible instrument.
Q Your upcoming concerts in San Francisco include two new works by young composers, who are in residence with your orchestra in Chicago: Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. Some people might not recognize that you are such an advocate for contemporary music.
A The people who don’t recognize it are people who are not informed. Because when I was in La Scala and Philadelphia I performed so much contemporary music, and I commissioned so much contemporary music. So I don’t understand this response. If you look at the programs from Philadelphia and La Scala — many, many works of contemporary composers.
But my job is not only to promote the contemporary music, but also to work in the repertoire. With every orchestra, you have to do Bruckner, Schubert, Mahler; the big repertory remains for the conductor and for the public.
And then there are the conductors that are considered specialists in contemporary music. But I can assure you that, if you can conduct Mozart, you can conduct contemporary music — but not necessarily that, if you can conduct contemporary music, you can conduct Mozart. I can assure you that.
Q Why did you select Bates and Clyne as composers in residence?
A Even being so different one from the other, they both use the orchestra with personal language — but not forgetting that they have to express feelings. Even using a modern language and trying to invent new possibilities of timbre and harmonies and counterpoint in the orchestra — even doing that, they don’t forget that the purpose of music is to touch people, not just to make noise.
Q Many people don’t really “get” what a conductor does. Can you describe the essence of conducting?
A I come from a school where we don’t learn the art of conducting without learning deeply the music. I started the violin first, and I had a degree in piano, and then I studied composition for ten years. And then when by accident I discovered that I had some qualities to be a conductor. I went to Milan, where I studied with Antonino Votto, who had been an assistant to Toscanini in the ’20s.
He always taught us in the same way Toscanini taught his assistants. And the basic idea is that the arms are an extension of your mind. If you have a musical idea, you must explain it to the orchestra, and then the arms should reflect this idea. It should not be a reason to make a show in front of the public. And my teacher had a great sense of humor. When some of the pupils had a problem starting a symphony, he said, “Don’t worry, just make the sign of a strong downbeat.” He said, “You do this, something will happen in the orchestra.”
The arms are not an instrument. We should use the arms to keep the orchestra together and to underline the expression. But as my friend Carlos Kleiber used to say, “Caro Riccardo, dear Riccardo, it would be so wonderful to conduct without conducting.”
Q Does this ever happen for you, that you feel you’re barely even conducting, physically speaking?
A Yes, in fact my way of conducting today is less demonstrative than when I was young.
Q I want to ask you about the many demands of being a music director in the United States. How do you feel about attending all the fundraising receptions, all the schmoozing you have to do?
A Schmoozing? What is this?
Q I mean having to constantly make social conversation in order to meet people and maybe win them over as patrons.
A I don’t spend so much time with this. I do what is necessary, not more than what is necessary. And people in Chicago, they respect this.
To spend time together and speak about music is certainly very rewarding. And they understand that, even if music and museums and hospitals and schools in this country are supported 100 percent by the private patrons, and not by the state, still that doesn’t mean that we musicians have to be on our knees in front of the people that help the organization.
Even the poor Mozart had to beg the archbishop or the important people to have a job. But in Chicago and when I was in Philadelphia, I have never had the impression that the private rich people wanted to treat the musicians like people who have to say “thank you” all the time. Because in the end, we give culture to the society, and this is a very important thing. A society with good music and culture is always a better society.