Riccardo Chailly

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Riccardo Chailly

Riccardo Chailly fell under a musical spell at a young age. Now – currently at the helm of the legendary Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – he is one of the world’s foremost concert conductors, appearing in great concert venues around the globe.

Riccardo Chailly

Music has always been a constant, all-consuming passion for Riccardo Chailly – even as a young boy.

“Music for me was very primordiale,” he says. “My earliest memories were of my father’s music because he composed many operas and symphonic works. Yet I always associated it with the night-time because, when I was about three years old, I would be in bed in my room and go to sleep listening to him composing at the piano.”

Riccardo loved music to the exclusion of almost everything else – but that remarkable commitment and focus turned him into one of the world’s greatest conductors. He has since appeared in front of acclaimed orchestras in the most prestigious concert venues across the globe, including the Wiener Musikverein, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His recording career, with Decca, has also been widely acclaimed.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the young Riccardo – born in Milan, Italy, in 1953 – was so gifted and musically minded: his composer father, Luciano Chailly, was also Artistic Director of the legendary La Scala opera house, so music was bound to be in his blood. Riccardo quickly fulfilled his promise, studying piano, showing precocious flair as a conductor; then, encouraged by the Italian conductor and teacher Franco Ferrara, he enrolled in conservatories in Rome and Perugia.

At the tender age of 13, Riccardo was invited to conduct his first concert for the Italian chamber orchestra, I Solisti Veniti, in Padua. Later, he studied at the conservatory in Milan, where his father was a tutor, under the distinguished composer and teacher, Bruno Betinelli. Then the floodgates opened.

Aged just 20, Riccardo became assistant conductor at La Scala, making his opera debut; and then won plaudits for a sensational US debut, conducting Madame Butterfly. After this triumph he was much in demand, and during his career has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Munich Philharmonic, the Wiener Philharmoniker, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has also been musical director of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the RoyalConcertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, from 1988 to 2004.

Since 2005, he has been chief conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which he first conducted in 1986. “That was an exceptional situation for me,” he says, “because I was very young. You have to remember that the Gewandhaus is a legendary and historical orchestra – the oldest in Europe with more than 232 years of tradition. Yet the whole thing clicked after just two minutes of rehearsal.”

One thing is for certain: Riccardo Chailly was born to be on the podium.

And – whatever the venue – he has been described as having “the perfect balance between passion and technique, spontaneity and control.” It’s a fitting description for this most famous of Maestros.

What kinds of music did you enjoy as a boy?
Classical music was the first step for me and I took my first piano lessons at the age of seven. But, in the summer when I had more time available, I would listen to other kinds of music. In those years – and we’re talking about the early 1960s – my first choice was The Beatles.

You studied composition with your father, Luciano. What was he like as a teacher?
He was incredibly competent and an excellent teacher of composition. But he was extremely hard on me because I was his son, I think. But thanks to this teaching – which I took for one year – I entered the Milan Conservatory.

Were you aware of his reputation as a composer?
Yes, because I was always going to performances of his music as a young boy. Back then he was one of the leading composers in Italy. He instilled professionalism in me and, later, when I started my conducting career, I learnt how crucial his influence and teaching had been.

You conducted your first concert at 13. Were you nervous?
I was anxious to start with but, after five bars, I was completely at ease – which was very strange. It was Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, I remember, and, from that time on, I’ve never stopped conducting! For me, when I stand in front of an orchestra now, all potential problems have disappeared because I have already worked through them sitting at my desk at home. Yes, there is always a tension before a concert, but that dissipates quite quickly, especially if things are going well. It’s been said that your US debut was a turning point in your career. It was. It was 1976 and I was given Madame Butterfly to conduct. I was so young and it was such a jump into the unknown and a big success. Afterwards I was invited to the San Francisco Opera to conduct Turandot with the only stage performance of Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé. Puccini has always been present in my opera activity – and always will be.

Who is your favorite composer?
For me, there is one above all others: Johann Sebastian Bach. Since conducting my first concert, aged 13, his music has always held great emotion for me. I would name ‘the four sacred Bs’, actually: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner – but Bach always first.

You have appeared in the world’s most famous concert halls. Which are your favorites?
There are five: Wiener Musikverein, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Boston Symphony Hall and New York Carnegie Hall. Last but not least is the Leipzig Gewandhaus. It is a miracle of perfection acoustically. We are very proud to play in such a hall. It is a daily privilege.

The Gewandhaus tours all over the world with precious musical instruments – so logistics must be important to you.
Yes, it’s as important as timing in music. If logistics run late a concert can be completely spoiled – as is the atmosphere of audience expectation… and the serenity of the musicians! Musicians need to have their instruments delivered to them in good time so that they can practise, warm-up and be prepared. If the logistics are wrong, this sets a chain of problems in motion which affects all of us – and the quality of the concert itself.

What abilities does a great conductor need to possess?
Humanity – because you are dealing with an instrument of human beings; plus psychological intuition and charisma – and conducting technique because a conductor’s language is the language of gestures. It isn’t verbal. Trust is also very important. With trust, you can go through the Himalayas with your orchestra!

Away from music, how do you relax?
30 years ago I used to ride motorbikes, but that stopped when I had an accident. I had to cease conducting for over three months, and my son was on the bike too – but, fortunately, he only had minor injuries. Then I took up paragliding! Now, though, I relax with my family and we have three houses immersed in nature: one near Milan, one in the mountains and one at the seaside where I can really enjoy my free time. But music is never far away. When I’m not listening to it I’m reading about the great composers of the past in order to build ideas about interpretations for the future.

Tony Greenway

You can find out more about DHL’s work with the Gewandhaus Orchestra here:

http://www.dhl.com/en/about_us/brandworld/ gewandhaus_orchestra.html

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0903 E6A48BF0B83A&feature=plcp