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Riccardo Chailly

By Joseph E. Romero

AMSTERDAM, 8 February 1999 - Since his appointment in 1988 as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly has had the difficult task of convincing a not always receptive Dutch public of his modernist vision of the late Romantic repertoire - particularly the music of Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss, the stock and trade of the Amsterdam orchestra, already brilliantly defended and amply recorded by his predecessor, Bernard Haitink.

Milan-born and a modernist, Chailly has guided the Amsterdam orchestra through the first decade of its second century of existence and is poised to take it into the next millenium. The 46-year-old conductor is a musician of strong convictions, and has demonstrated in concert and on disc that he is not afraid to confront or expose the shadows or black humour of a score, at the same time making the listener aware that what lies behind Alexander von Zemlinsky's notes can be rather terrifying, explicitly sexual or patently absurd. Chailly's deliberate avoidance of interpretative excess and vulgarity in Mahler, for example, produces greater clarity and lighter, often diaphanous textures from his Dutch musicians.

In a performance of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony during the Concertgebouw Orchestra's recent gala celebration of its 110 years, Chailly brought the winds centre stage for richer colour and better balance and the results were indeed attractive. But it is especially in Edgard Varèse or Luciano Berio's pioneering works that Chailly is a cut above his colleagues. Unlike certain modernist conductors, Chailly's work never sounds arid, clinical or unstitched; most importantly, his interpretations are free of the stale agendas one associates with the fragmented narrative of modern music with its rigid obediences and intolerant post-war mafias.

In an exclusive interview from his canal-front home in Amsterdam - coincidentally designed by the same architect as the Concertgebouw, but whose splendid interior, intricate boiseries, and mural drawings are the work of his wife Gabriella - Riccardo Chailly talked to Klassiknet's Joseph Romero about his relationship with the 115-member Concertgebouw Orchestra, its tradition, its public and his views on modern and new music.

For all that, he has a firm hand while on the podium, off stage, Chailly has a warm manner, smiles easily and likes a good cigar. He is visibly as much at ease in a richly woven wool cardigan as he is in white tie and tails, and his favourite piece of furniture in his well-appointed study is an American rocking chair.

Joseph Romero: In a Dutch television documentary, you commented that the Concertgebouw Orchestra is the most difficult and the most critical to deal with on a daily basis. Are you suggesting that the Dutch are unaccepting and hard to convince?

Riccardo Chailly: Yes, they never take anything for granted. You always have to qualify your artistic reasons, your intellectual orientation. That does not mean that they are not ready to accept it. On the contrary, they are very open-minded. This is the dichotomy which is so intriguing. Because of their own need to be convinced, they want to know the inside-out of the reasons. I had to explain more in my early days. Now, they know me better, so there is very little need for verbal explanation during rehearsal. Because of the Concertgebouw tradition with certain composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, it was necessary to get them on my side progressively.

JR: Would this also be true of the Vienna Philharmonic with which you had a difficult relationship in 1988 in Salzburg?

Chailly: No, I had a problem with the Vienna Philharmonic not because of the mentality but because of the rotation system and constant changes of musicians in the opera pit. That was the reason for my clash with them. It had nothing to do with artistic issues. I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic last year in an unconventional programme of Janacek, Korngold, Zemlinsky. It was the first time they had ever played this music by Korngold and Zemlinsky and there were no problems in terms of communication or artistic orientation.

JR: How did a 32-year-old conductor take the helm of a rather tradition-bound, old-world establishment such as the Concertgebouw Orchestra?

Riccardo Chailly

Chailly: It happened unconsciously. In retrospect, this was probably the secret. Had I been fully conscious of the circumstances and what would follow upon my first appearance in Amsterdam, I probably would not be here today. I came in with all the youthful enthusiasm and power of a man in his thirties and conveyed my beliefs to the orchestra. The process was natural. The orchestra appoints the chief conductor. The board should agree with their choice, but it is the orchestra which votes. Nothing can be forced on an orchestra of highly trained musicians. You have to have reasons and a certain way of dealing with them and the music which convinces epidermically. I don't think an intellectual relationship is enough. It should be an instinctive, emotional, epidermic contact. This was in fact what happened in 1985 during my first concert here.

JR: And if they were interested in you, it must have been linked to your interest in new music since the Concertgebouw had only worked with you in a concert program of Luciano Berio and other contemporary composers.

Chailly: They needed and wanted a new face for new music. Historically, they always chose a chief conductor under the age of forty. Willem Mengelberg was only twenty-four when he started at the Concertgebouw and he stayed half a century. This is the glorious past of this orchestra. Van Beinum and Haitink were also in their thirties when they were appointed.

JR: In your case was the decision unanimous?

Chailly: The overwhelming majority I would say.

JR: Was it the younger members of the orchestra who lobbied on your behalf?

Chailly: I don't know the details, but in 1985 it was a rather old orchestra. The orchestra is clearly younger and more progressive today, although the overlap between those leaving and those arriving is carefully coordinated. It is important that they have time together. This is crucial if the orchestra's tradition and sound culture are to be successfully transmitted and maintained.

JR: Why do you think that subsequent generations did not respond to modern music when in fact Mengelberg was quite interested in the music of his time?

Chailly: What I think we both wanted when I was appointed was to return to the programme style of Mengelberg. As you pointed out, he dealt daily with the music of living composers: Richard Strauss, Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Dutch composers such as Diepenbrock. I think that was progressively lost in the forty years which followed. It is important to have a clear sense of reality of the century that you are living in and the music of your century. One of the very last composers of the avant-agarde which ended in the sixties was Egard Varèse. What followed immediately after - like the younger Stockhausen or Luigi Nono - was the new avant-garde. Today, we talk about the post-avant-garde. In that sense it is important that an orchestra be a living element of culture with the knowledge and confidence to explore new languages.

JR: Some Amsterdam concert-goers feel that you are like other conductors of your generation; that is, that you are at your best in contemporary music. Would you agree with this assessement of your work?

Chailly: It's easier to say "best" in contemporary music because people know it less. They think they know more about Romantic and late-Romantic music and that is a one-sided point of view. The reason why some of my performances of late Romantic music are regarded with a certain anxiety, although less and less over the years, is because they sound different. Public agitation occurred at the beginning because my Strauss, Bruckner and Mahler sounded different and the public was asking, "how far are we going to change our image of the past"? And my answer is: I am at least a full generation younger than Haitink. I would have started to worry if my Strauss or Mahler sounded the same. That would be dramatic.

Photos : Top - Paul Huf / Decca : Centre - Marco Borggreve.

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