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