First Experience of Classical Music
My father was the key person in my life. He had a half-sister married to a conductor of La Scala in Milano. He was a pupil of Toscanini. So, at an early age he arrived in Milano and he met everybody in music. Since I was a child I remember this baton going around in the house. I remember my father and the pieces of music that he liked most. Music has been a great passion ever since I was a child.
Childhood Memories of Music
Of course, the first time that I went to see La Traviata at the Opera House of Rome. Then what I remember is meeting a couple of conductors with tails, white ties and batons. I was very impressed. Probably, the first really big impression was one evening at sunset in Sardinia. I was listening to the nocturnes of Chopin and I had a big emotion. I remember later but not much later, I had a boyfriend and when I put on the Concert No.2 of Chopin, he said to me ‘What’s that?” and I thought he cannot be my boyfriend, somebody who says to me what’s that!
I respect musicians for their discipline. No matter how they feel, they are out there performing. I learnt the word discipline very early. I was the only girl with three brothers so my father was very tough. He educated me like a boy. Until very late, I didn’t know what was girlish; I never played with a doll, I never put on pink shoes with the frills. I was a tomboy and maybe this was a great advantage. I was not trapped in this idea that I had to be feminine or that I had to be pretty. I cruised through my life without noticing all of that. I didn’t think that it was important.
Did you parents encourage you to take your own path in life?
I think my father gave me a lot of freedom but with a very strong and firm moral education. Don’t forget, he was a man of another century. I think my mother was very harsh with me and my father was very warm. He tried to sort out everything that was possible in terms of artistic side but undoubtedly sport was his thing. I think he was very keen for me to probably be away from the stupid social life that young people sometimes get lost in. I had to run. I had to swim, study, run, swim and study! So I didn’t have the time. I eventually found music, that’s it.
Founding the Competition
It was not easy to create the conducting competition. We started very, very little. But I can feel and I could feel where I had to go and what I had to do. It’s a question of sensibility. It’s like for a conductor, for a pianist, for a violinist, for any instrumentalist or any musician, you have to know that when you read a score, the score becomes yours and has to come out from your heart and from your soul, your brain, from everything. The secret is to have the brain and heart together.
What music is especially important for you?
Libestod from Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. Maybe, Brahms Piano Concerto. Maybe, all of the Russians. I am passionate about the Russians and Chopin. The slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
How has your musical taste developed?
I think I’ve developed in everything from my teenage time not just in music! Of course, though, what I liked at that time I still like it. I’ve discovered more because you cannot love enormously what you don’t know. Of course now, knowing more, I love more composers. Benjamin Britten, I had a certain allergy to for a long time and suddenly it starts to work for me. Now, I fully understand Shostakovich. I think that music slowly moulds your soul. It’s like, for example, Stravinsky; I cannot come to terms with it. With Britten there are some sides of his music that can capture me. The only way is to listen and to try to analyse what you like and what you don’t like. I went to listen to William Tell last week and I found the music incredible, I was just captured. In the choir at the end of the second act, I could pick out some Mozart Requiem. It was conducted by Pappano, he’s a genius and I was quite moved. Let’s put it in that way, very often music moves me. I can even cry.
Opera and Society
Should the opera reflect what’s going on the world? No. I don’t think so. Music doesn’t have to reflect that. We had people like Shostakovich, like Prokofiev that have suffered so much at that time with what was going on in the world. Music is a refuge for your soul, for your heart and for your brain. No, it’s to help you to become bigger, not smaller, happier and not sadder. I think music has a specific role, which is very important, to put more peace inside of you.
Why did you start the Competition?
I thought that conductors at that time, the famous ones, were all very old. I immediately realised that especially after seeing Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg, that if you see a soloist, you can take your violin or you can play piano almost everywhere but an orchestra is very difficult to take up. So I spoke to the young conductors with no money who study so much and saw that they didn’t have any chance to step out into the big world. At that time I was quite comfortable with a husband and I thought, why not help young conductors? Music is part of life. How could somebody not live without music?
Who else played an important role in founding the Competition?
At that time I decided to make the conducting competition. I remember that it was during a lunch in the Italian embassy. I was introduced to Lord Birkett. During all these years he has been like a father, he was determined to give to the competition. He gave me the confidence to go on with my ideas that are sometimes outrageous. When I lost him about three months ago, I lost a big part of the competition. In my heart, I feel a bit like an orphan.
LSO Partnership and Young Conductors
With Clive Gillinson, many years ago, we decided that the final concert would have been with them. Then, in the last couple of competitions, I asked the LSO to be the administrator and so, if you want, the association became tighter. A concert is one thing and a competition is completely another, this is the key to everything. I have found a fantastic orchestra with the LSO and Kathryn McDowell is a fantastic woman. We make a good team. The first competition that we did together, they didn’t quite understand, young conductors they are more difficult than conductors in general. I don’t know if by getting older they get better but young conductors are full of life, full of enthusiasm and very determined so it is a pleasure to work with them.
What do the competitors gain from the Competition?
First of all, watch the others. This year we had two hundred and fifty applications, which we had to cut down to twenty. The twenty that arrive for the final are very nervous, of course. They are hoping, all of them, to get to the final. It is very interesting because some of them come highly prepared, some of them arrogant, some others they are especially modest, some of them very talented.
The tendency of a conductor is to be isolated. He is with his own orchestra when he has to conduct because nobody tells them what to do and I believe that it is a crash course for them because they suddenly learn so much. What I always find very encouraging is when they ask the jury why they’ve been eliminated and the jury is very kind to explain to them why. I think that it’s a big chance for them. I always give them advice to come to the final because even then, they have to have the idea out of the three, who should be the winner. They have to find out why this great conductor that sits in the jury picks one out of the three. I think it’s a big step in their career as well as in their lives.
Advice to future Competitors
To study and be determined, that’s it.
Why should the public attend the final concert?
It’s the competition between human beings. The competition is a symbol of their lives if they are intelligent enough and sensitive enough, they can project themselves, onto one of the three and decide whom to follow. In the end, even if they are not a professional musician, they must feel something in their heart that tells them who deserves to win. I think it’s a competition of life.
Will this be an insightful look into conducting for the general public?
Well, generally speaking, the people who buy tickets and go to concerts are not professional musicians. A lot of people who enjoy music don’t know much about it. I believe that the competition, gives them a kick, they understand that there is beautiful music going on, a great orchestra and three young men and women. They don’t know who is going to be the winner. Of course, the jury knows but the public very often doesn’t, so they are very curious. In a normal concert, you know that there is maybe a great conductor, a great piece of music but in reality you don’t know what’s going on but there it is like you are involved.
Would you consider audience voting?
Yes, I’ve been tempted. Yes.
London as a centre of music
Undoubtedly, in the last twenty-five years, music in London has become very important, probably the most important in the world. I would like more young people because I think that when you start at the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty you should be helped more. Of course, classical music has become more fashionable. I think that young people can find a lot of order inside them as well as a passion for more profound things with classical music. I have found a big difference, especially in women. They were not so many women before. I was one of the rare women to go to the symphony when I was a young woman and now I believe that it’s changed. It’s changed a lot for the better.
Classical music as a source of hope and strength
In any moment of big crisis, or big war or big problem, music will never let you down. I think that classical music is something that gives hope to a lot of souls and to a lot of people. I think it is very beautiful to dance, to have rock and pop but I think classical music is there, like a stone, like something unmovable. I don’t know how to explain how it gives you the strength to go on. I believe that this moment is highly beneficial for some lost souls.
How should the Competition evolve?
By making classical music more popular and having lots of young people coming to watch it, like they go to watch the premier of a new movie. I would like them to jump for music, jump and say, “Oh, wow. Tonight there is a conducting competition with all the young men and women my age. Let’s see why they are special, why they study so much and why they are so happy to get there. Let’s go instead of seeing Rambo number twenty five or whatever.” I think that I would like the competition to become an event for young people to come to see and support other young people.
Inspiring Young People
I really believe that the Competition is an inspiration for young people. I think it’s educational. I think it gives them hope that if you don’t give up. If you go on studying and working, eventually you will get there, like the three that arrive at the final. They got there on the stage with a large audience, with one of the most important orchestras in the world so it’s a big example. It is very important because the competitors don’t, but they could turn to the other young people and say, see I did it, so much work but it paid off.
Passion and Professionalism in Music
Passion is the most important thing in life. Somebody who has passion, like a musician, has already won half of their life. I think that the reason there are so many young people with crime and other things is because they don’t have a real passion. They don’t know what to do about their lives. Music is an enormous inspiration. I would like that young to understand that. Education should also be done with music because music will show to children out in the street that they could have another reality not just hanging about in the street.
Music and Sport: Transforming Lives and Society
Music can be a transformation, it can be a strong education and it can teach discipline. When you have a passion, life never lets you down. Saying that, it’s not just music. Passion can be in painting, it can be in writing, it can be in anything. Maybe there are people who are passionate about banks and why not? But passion is very important in life.
Music and Crying: Scriabin and Rachmaninov
Scriabin, I love him! You know, I have to tell you something very funny. I went to see the symphony no.2 of Rachmaninov and in the interval before the symphony I went to chat to my friends. I then sat very stupidly in the hall. I fixed my hair, I sat there and they started Rachmaninov. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop because I was taken by storm by this cascade of notes. I was not prepared because I was chatting away. Sometimes, you see, how stupid we are. That story shows that how sometimes after a concert like that you have to walk, or to think, you would like just to make a recapitulation. This is the beauty of music.
Women, Conducting and Music
I think it’s a question of charisma, a question of being respected from the orchestra and sometimes by other women. As a women, I think that classical music is a very macho world but there are some great female musicians. Women like, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Marta Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida are fantastic.
Coping Under Competition Pressure
You see everything. The first thing I always notice is vulnerability. I think that they are very vulnerable. They display their knowledge sometimes with confidence, sometimes fear and you need to have a certain kind of sensibility to get in tune with them not scare them more but not to relax them too much. Be alert but not too much otherwise they feel threatened. It’s a very strange combination of many little and big things. A conductor will understand what I am talking about. I think that when you are so young and suddenly so exposed it can be frightening, as I said it’s not a normal concert. Young conductors, they are a very big enigma.
What do you look for in a great conductor?
You have to understand that the conductor is in the middle between the composer and the audience. The public is somehow stupid because we don’t know how much work lies beneath. The conductor has the responsibility to take a score and communicate it to you, which takes an enormous amount work and is enormous responsibility. Second, they need to have talent. The most important thing is charisma and how they communicate. Of course, having sensitivity and intelligence helps a lot. A conductor needs great musicality, great discipline, great work and great charisma. They need to able to go on stage and suddenly capture the hearts of the orchestra and public at the same time. That’s what makes a great conductor.