CONDUCTOR OF THE YEAR


The 2015 Honorees

By George Loomis

Music director of the Teatro Regio Torino (Turin), the fiery 50-year-old Milan-born conductor holds several orchestra posts and is in high demand for opera and orchestral engagements throughout the world.

Being present for Gianandrea Noseda’s Mariinsky Theatre debut in 1997 is an experience I will not forget. Times were tough in Russia economically, and foreign artists almost never appeared at the theater in St. Petersburg (and remain rare today). So it was a remarkable occasion when a fiery young Italian showed up one February evening and conducted a highly charged performance of Le Nozze di Figaro. I was not the only one impressed. By the end of the year the theater’s director, Valery Gergiev, named Noseda principal guest conductor.

“The St. Petersburg experience was great—living there, learning the language, going to market. It had a big impact on my music making,” said Noseda in an interview early last summer. At that time he was music director of the Teatro Regio Torino (Turin). Then in August he became the first of several high-profile conductors in top music positions, including Riccardo Muti, Nicola Luisotti, and Daniele Rustioni, to announce their departures from Italian opera houses due to the mounting difficulties of producing opera in Italy. 

“I started conducting quite late—I was 27 when I had my first lesson.” He first met Gergiev in 1993 as a participant in master classes in Siena. The experience brought a bonus when Gergiev sent his own teacher, the legendary Ilya Musin, then 90, to take the initial sessions. “Musin was incredible. I learned how to use gestures to create sounds. Conducting technique is easy to learn, but it takes a lifetime to be a real conductor.”

Noseda’s association with Gergiev opened doors. Noseda made his U.S. debut in 1998, succeeding Gergiev for several performances of Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery at the San Francisco Opera. His Metropolitan Opera debut followed in 2002 under similar circumstances in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Since then he has led other operas there in highly praised performances, including last season’s critically acclaimed Prince Igor. Also in 2002 he began a decade at the helm of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, of which he is now conductor laureate.

“In each of my posts I have felt like a pioneer facing new challenges. In St. Petersburg it was the plunge into Russian repertoire. Manchester had a heavy recording schedule—every concert was broadcast or televised. We’ve made nearly 40 recordings for Chandos.” Several discs feature 20th-century Italians, such as Alfredo Casella, Luigi Dallapiccola, Goffredo Petrassi, and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. “It’s part of my duty to bring this music to the public. I also learned in Manchester to be more efficient—to get the best result with few rehearsals.” 

Noseda was born in Milan in 1964. “My father was an amateur chorus master, so music was in the family. We had an upright piano, and I began to form my tastes about music. One day I thought, ‘Why not learn to read music?’ Progress was quick because I didn’t find the piano difficult. Now I do! As a pianist, I favored German masters—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms.” He studied piano and composition at the Milan Conservatory and continued there for his conducting studies.

Noseda speculates that his artistic personality partakes of “German richness and precision, the Russian dark sound and storytelling ability, and the spirit and cantabile of Italianità. The dark sound can be very helpful in Italian opera.” Noseda is also respectful of an orchestra’s tradition—the German heritage of the Pittsburgh Symphony, for example, of which he is Victor de Sabata guest conductor, or the “eclectic” nature of the Israel Philharmonic, of which he is principal guest conductor. The latter is “made up of Jewish people from all over the world, and its official language is Russian!” He has guest conducted many of the world’s great orchestras.

No single performance will lift a conductor into the top ranks, but Noseda scored a decisive triumph in October 2011 when he led the London Symphony and Chorus in Britten’s War Requiem in Avery Fisher Hall. “I think the performance changed the perception of me in New York and America. The piece is huge and its vocal element is very operatic.” Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote, “Noseda marshaled the finest War Requiem I have heard.” His relationship with the London Symphony continued in 2013 with his debut at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in a new production of Rigoletto.

Meanwhile, back in Italy, he became artistic director in 2001 of the Stresa Festival idyllically situated on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy. And a new chapter of Noseda’s career began in 2007  when he became music director of the Teatro Regio Torino, which has a reputation as one of three companies (La Scala, where he is a frequent guest, and La Fenice are the others) that maintain artistic excellence and pay their bills. Noseda has brought the Teatro Regio into the ranks of leading opera houses. “It doesn’t work to ask for money and say you need it to improve quality,” he said. “Instead, you must improve quality first, and then the money will come.”

He built up the orchestra, brought in talented new singers, improved the conductor roster, attracted top directors, led the company in recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, saw an increase in the number of performances and box-office revenues, and took the company on international tours. Borrowing a page from Gergiev, he turned to fundraising himself, tapping especially Torino’s industrial base to make up for governmental cutbacks. In a major initiative, Noseda planned a four-city North American tour for late 2014 showcasing Rossini’s challenging final opera, William Tell.

“If you just try to preserve what you have, the result will be slow euthanasia,” he said in a veiled reference to opposition from Walter Vergnano, the Teatro Regio’s general manager, to certain past projects and his ambitions for the theater’s future. In an e-mail received before going to press, Noseda said he would not renew his contract, which expired in July, absent a change in management. “In order for opera to survive in Italy,” he continued, “it is important for the system to change and for administrative leadership to emerge that matches the energies of music directors and of artists, theater workers, and staff.”

Noseda says he wants to keep a roughly even balance between opera and symphonic engagements, but with a slightly greater emphasis of the latter. Planned for 2015 are his Salzburg Festival debut, conducting Il Trovatore, and his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in a Petrassi-Strauss-Tchaikovsky program. “I would hope to return to Torino as music director, but regardless of what happens I remain committed to my country as an artist and look forward to many exciting performances at the theater and on tour this season.” •

George Loomis writes about classical music for the International New York Times, Financial Times, Opera Magazine, Musical America, and numerous other publications.

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