Amanda MacBlane: You’ve said that Verdi is in the DNA of the Italian people. What is your first conscious memory of Verdi?
Gianandrea Noseda: My first real encounter with Verdi as a musician came when I was a student in 1977. They were still broadcasting operas live from La Scala, and I was really shocked by the power of Otello. It really changed my perception of Verdi, seeing him not only as an important historic figure but as a big personality. I find such integrity in his way of writing music. He was a very honest man in life and also when he put music on the paper. At the end of the Requiem Mass that I conducted with the LSO last month, I thought, “wow!” Even if I’ve conducted it several times before, it’s just the kind of music that inspires you. You want to touch it again.
AM: So what about the Requiem inspired you this time that was different than previous times?
GN: I was less ashamed to get into the extremes. The score pushed me to go to the biggest possible extreme between the quietest moments and the loudest, not just in terms of volume but in terms of meaning. Sometimes people try to make the music shout more gently, to be politically correct. But actually with Verdi, because of the music’s integrity, which is clear and dramatic, the key is to not be ashamed. You have the soul of the man in front of you. You have to go for it. And Verdi’s emotionality is not your responsibility. It’s his responsibility.
"Don’t ever put your own words in Verdi's mouth. It’s not going to work. You’re going to lose."
AM: If you were teaching young conductors about Verdi, what advice would you give them?
GN: I would tell them, let Verdi speak to the audience through you. Don’t ever put your own words in Verdi's mouth. It’s not going to work. You’re going to lose because he’s a much bigger personality than you. Technically, just try to be as simple as possible. Follow the Verdi essence. You should not be afraid to put yourself in front of Verdi. Love him. Trust him. Of course, to do this is not simple and you need to prove your understanding of Verdi. That’s the role of the interpreter. So as much as you can: know Verdi. If you are not Italian, visit Italy and the places where Verdi lived. Try the food he was eating. Parma ham, the parmesan, the wine that is produced where Verdi was born in Lambrusco. Hearing the way people speak there is crucial in Verdi. The music really follows the rhythms and the movement of the words. Sometimes to get the right tempo in Verdi, you have to be able to say the phrase correctly.
AM: Are there any questions that you wish you could ask Verdi?
GN: I would ask where he was able to find the energy throughout his life to completely change the society that he was living in. He never stopped trying to improve things, not only for himself but for society in general. Verdi was born in 1813 and Italy was not Italy; it was several countries. And by the end of his life in 1901, Italy was a unified country. Throughout that time, Verdi took action through philanthropic gestures. He invested all of his money into the founding of the Italian copyright society and supported the construction of homes for retired musicians, which still exist. He also gave money to build a hospital. And he was a very talented farmer. Can you believe that? One of our greatest composers was a farmer! And he was an incredible business man. He was very severe with himself and with the people surrounding him, but was also known for his kind gestures and for being very tender with children. Of course, he lost his first wife and two sons at a very early age, so he was touched by very traumatic moments in his life and you can see those moments in his music.
"More than a musician, you should be a narrator."
AM: We’ve talked about what you tell young conductors about Verdi. What did Maestro Gergiev tell you about conducting Russian music?
GN: What I learned from Valery and my fellow students in Russia is that when you conduct any music, but especially the big works in the Russian repertoire, you must keep the tension alive and be able to tell a story. More than a musician, you should be a narrator. And I think this is even more important today in our lives where it’s difficult to have just 20 minutes without being interrupted. You have to be able to keep people’s attention for an hour or even 90 minutes. This concentration has to feel effortless, like when I was a boy and my grandmother would keep my brother and me quiet for an hour by telling us stories. That’s where I discovered that quality, and I think that this quality is very valuable today to help us take back the time we have and be able to really listen. It’s not necessarily about concentrating every single second, but being present, being open, getting the message. When you are in Russia and talk with Russian people, they have a sort of poetic soul and they tell you stories. Everything sounds like a novel or a poem. And while I’m not Russian, I find telling a story to anyone, whether to my nephews or an audience, very moving.
AM: Sometimes coming from an outside perspective helps you to see those qualities more clearly. Most Russian people probably wouldn’t recognize that they are natural storytellers. It’s like learning another language. You may find a word in that language to be incredibly beautiful, but native speakers just hear it as ordinary.
GN: I am absolutely with you. To eliminate the cliché, we should try to learn and be open. I like to learn about the way people live in their home countries. I find it so enriching. In all the arts, but in music perhaps more, it’s important to be open and to be ready to listen to someone. And I love connecting with New York. After my visit with the LSO, I’ll be spending New Year’s Eve with you, too, conducting Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Met. An Italian story written by an Englishman in New York with French music and an Italian conductor! It’s fantastic.
Top image: Gianandrea Noseda by Sussie Ahlburg