Ulster Orchestra’s new principal conductor: ‘Opera was in my DNA’

Daniele Rustioni has performed at some the world’s greatest theatres


The Ulster Orchestra’s new principal conductor Daniele Rustioni was very young when he got to work in Italy’s most famous opera house, La Scala, in his native Milan. And it was not as a conductor, but as a singer.

It all grew out of his mother singing in a choir. Rather than pay for babysitters she used to bring him to church for the rehearsals. The chorus master was also an organist and Rustioni was fascinated to see someone seated at the organ and play music with their legs. By the time he was 16 he had his degree as an organist. “I have all this Bach and church music inside of me,” he says.

The opera came from both parents. His father use to play, “you know, those big discs,” he says, as he struggles to remember the word for LPs. “I would wake up in the morning and he would be playing his LPs of Rossini [Il barbiere di Siviglia] and Mozart [Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni].

His mother was so impressed with his calmness and concentration at the choir’s rehearsals that she enrolled him in the boys’ choir of La Scala. “I stayed eight years. There was the big maestro there, Riccardo Muti, and I would watch him, without realising exactly what a conductor was really doing.

“I started to fall in love with theatre, with how such a big machine works. I was singing in Boito’s Mefistofele. The boys sing in the prologue and epilogue, and in between you have two and a half hours of music. I couldn’t stay away from the stage. I got a technician to give me a chair, and someone brought me ice cream, and I watched the show from the side. I could see all the workings of the changes of scene.”

He was obviously no mean singer, either. He was cast as one of the three boys in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with Muti. Muti asked him what he wanted to do. And when he said he wanted to conduct, Muti laughed. “Because you want all the others to do the work. But if you really want to do it you have to study piano and composition, because nowdays conductors are not good at musical analysis.”

“I believed him,” says Rustioni. “And I studied for 15 years at the Milan Conservatory – organ, Gregorian chant, piano, traditional composition, orchestral conducting, and I played a lot of piano in chamber ensembles. My second job after being an organist was in La Scala as a répétiteur. Unfortunately that was exactly the year Muti went – or was sent – from La Scala.”

He decided to continue his studies in London, “two magical years, with so many opportunities to conduct,” even though he was one of 11 sharing living space, where there was only room for six. Before he left Italy he had made contact with Ginanadrea Noseda, who was then conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. He would travel from London to Manchester on a £6 fare on a night coach, and “basically followed three seasons of his work there in a lot of crazy, different repertoire. An amazing experience”.

Noseda, who was then also music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, set up his symphonic debut with the orchestra there, an all-Mozart programme, Symphony No. 1 (written when the composer was just eight), followed by the Haffner Symphony and Symphony No. 39. “Nowdays I think I’d rather conduct Mahler 2 than Mozart 39, it’s so difficult, really.”

He digresses for a moment to say that many of the senior conductors he’s spoken to have told him that “it’s easier to find young conductors with more Mahler or Shostakovich symphonies in their repertoire than Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert.” What seems like complicated stuff, he suggests, is more likely to get the ovation at the end. The great pianist Artur Schnabel’s remark about Mozart’s piano sonatas comes to mind, “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”.

He is proud that with his orchestra in Florence, the Orchestra della Toscana, where he has been principal conductor since 2014, he has conducted “all the late Mozart symphonies, all the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms”.

His reference point as a conductor, he says, is Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), one of the greats, whose career stretched over half a century. “He brought class and sacrality to the role, which is maybe not in fashion any more. But I think about him every time I have a major decision to make.”

Rustioni sees his own career path as being a bit unusual. “I conducted, as a young conductor, more opera in the best theatres in the world than symphonic repertoire. In the last 10 years, with the likes of Harding and Dudamel, it’s the opposite, Mahler symphonies and the like before opera.” But in his case, “opera was in my DNA”.

He’s not exaggerating when he says best theatres. He’s conducted at the Royal Opera House in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Opéra Bastille in Paris, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and of course La Scala.

He has held posts at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari (Italy’s fourth largest opera house), and is currently principal conductor at the Opéra National de Lyon. But he now sees the ideal career balance as being “60 per cent symphonic and 40 per cent opera”.

“It can be dangerous,” he says, “to conduct a lot of Italian opera, because you can always find a way to lift the level, even if it’s a very simple accompaniment. But some of the best opera conductors were also the best symphonic conductors. The pit in the opera house sounds a bit cramped when you have symphonic knowledge.”

He was born in 1983 and measures his career at 12 years. What did he find difficult at the start of that career? “There were a lot of difficulties. Of course, you feel judged by experienced musicians. There’s the realisation that you cannot hide. Many conductors at the beginning try to look older. They even speak in front of the orchestra with an artificial voice.” He demonstrates the sound you get when you tuck your chin into your chest.

“You work with a mask. It’s a defensive move. No good orchestra wants to be conducted by an inexperienced conductor. It’s not a matter of age. But if the orchestra knows that you inexperienced, well, why are you there?”

You just need to be honest with yourself. Then you’ll get respect.

When you’re over that hurdle you understand that “you just need to be yourself on the podium, and to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. What you can hear with your inner ear. How much music you are able to digest. You just need to be honest with yourself. Then you’ll get respect.

“Too much focus and attention goes on wondering ‘Am I clear?’. So the thinking goes to the arm. But it doesn’t go necessarily to the music and the phrasing and to doing something with the sound.”

Then, he says, you start to go into a phase where you think, “I really need to be super-prepared. You prepare things to say before they actually happen. You arrive in front of the orchestra and you over-talk, you feed the players with things that are not useful. They have played the piece many times.

“The important realisation is that you need to work with what they offer. You can’t be like a teacher in front of a class, I want this, this and this. Of course you need to have your vision and be a leader. But you also need to work with your ear open.”

And what is difficult now? “It’s always difficult. I hope the day will never come when I think ‘Ah, I’ll feel comfortable’ because that’s the day. . .” he imitates, with sound effects, a plane falling out of the sky.

His sense of responsibility to the composer and the music itself “is growing and growing and growing. I’m less concerned, even when I go in front of a new and fantastic orchestra, about whether they will like me or not. I’m focused more on whether I will serve the music well or not.

“It doesn’t matter actually if I get along well with the orchestra. It will be my responsibility of course to create a good professional environment, so the orchestra can express themselves. I feel myself more uncomfortable and less relaxed when I’m studying at home than when I’m on the podium. At home I wonder am I really listening in the right way with my inner ear. If it’s a complicated piece I still need to play some chords on the piano to feel the verticality. But horizontal lines are no problem any more, even in works by Berg.”

Sometimes what conductors say is “just technical, for the ensemble, so that it can sound clean, or that the relationships of tempo can be right. It’s very hard to make a piece really yours, to not copy, to be yours in terms of meaning.”

An important realisation is that “you don’t have to speak and that when you do speak you realise that you may be giving information that’s not meaningful”. This sounds a bit like that famous quotation from the Tao Te Ching, “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”

“They can play without me,” he says. “It’s not a matter of beating the time.”

Daniele Rustioni’s first concert as principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra is at the Ulster Hall on Friday, September 27th. He conducts Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Johannes Moser, and Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony. His later concerts include works by Strauss, Berg, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (the First Violin Concerto with his wife Francesca Dega as soloist), Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Chopin and Bruckner, with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony closing the season next May. ulsterorchestra.com

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