‘Everything in this country today is going down the tubes,’ mutters the veteran BBC reporter, an Italy specialist, as we file into the concert. Then, looking up at the still-new auditorium of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, one of three towering, pod-like structures raised off the ground like alien spacecraft waiting to take flight, he checks himself. ‘Almost everything.’
Granted, this was a few weeks ago, before Italy stumbled into the full, bright glare of the EU’s anxious bean-counters, leading to the resignation of Prime Minster Silvio Berlosconi. But even had all that occurred that very day, it would have been hard to have felt that all was lost while the Santa Cecilia were there, in their imposing Rome base, preparing to shake the heavens as they opened their season with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony under a music director to whom they are clearly so close he increasingly seems like a father figure as much as a conductor, Antonio Pappano.
To say that this orchestra is resurgent is to understate things. With fine reviews and prizes falling into their laps at almost every turn (they did a Gramophone Awards double this year – for their recordings of Rossini’s Stabat Mater for EMI and a Jonas Kaufmann recital on Decca respectively – having previously won Awards for the Verdi Requiem in 2009 and Madama Butterfly in 2009), Italy’s premiere orchestra is more highly regarded that at any time in its history. So rather, they are, if this is a word, surgent (as in, surging to new heights).
It was not always so, says the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator Mauro Bucarelli. ‘At the end of the 1960s, there was a moment of crisis. One that lasted right through the 70s and up until the middle 1980s,’ he says, a look of regret on his face. Even though he only started working for Santa Cecilia in the early 1990s, he has been a fan since his childhood, and it pains him to remember the dark days when the orchestra were an afterthought, even in the local context of the Italian music scene. The problem then, he explains, was not lack of money (‘That problem we have now’) but the absence of a music director – after the departure of Igor Markevitch in 1976 and the death of his successor Thomas Schippers, Santa Cecilia were directorless until Giuseppe Sinopoli arrived in 1983. That, and the presence of heavyweight rivals from the Italian broadcaster RAI. With regular high-profile appearances from the likes of Seiji Ozawa and Zubin Mehta it was RAI, says Bucarelli, ‘who were the glamorous Italian orchestra’.
As much as anything, Santa Cecilia’s leapfrogging of their rivals can be attributed to strategic decisions by two figures of its recent past – artistic director Francesco Siciliani, who hired Sinopoli, and the academy’s President, Luciano Berio, who hired Pappano. Because, says Bucarelli, it was Sinopoli who restored to the orchestra its pride as a great symphony orchestra. He expanded the repertoire, programming Mahler and Bruckner. And he drove them hard (the relationship was not without its tensions, though Bucarelli tactfully says little, limiting himself to, ‘Sinopoli was not an easy character in front of the orchestra, the musicians loved him and they hated him – but both! There was one very difficult moment with Wagner’s Ring… We need all day to talk about Sinopoli.’).
Uto Ughi, Daniele Gatti and Myung-Whun Chung succeeded Sinopoli with varying fortunes. But when Pappano arrived, ‘it was a shock. The orchestra fell in love with him immediately’.
And here’s an interesting paradox. This orchestra is historically famous for those Decca opera sets – when the label needed an authentic Italian band for Tebaldi and (usually) Carlo Bergonzi, to counter the Callas/Di Stefano/La Scala threat from EMI. Yet the orchestra has almost never performed operas outside of those sessions. It was created for symphonic music and has rarely ventured outside of that tradition (the Decca recordings were made in the summertime, off-season). But although Bucarelli talks about his music director building on a musical line (‘It moves from Sinopoli, on through Gatti and then Chung did incredible work – like Giulini, who often conducted the orchestra, Danielle was obsessed with the beauty of sound in the strings – and now to Tony’) Pappano very clearly comes from an operatic way of thinking.
That is not to say that he wants the orchestra to focus on opera (though he thinks every good orchestra should balance both symphonic and operatic work), but his whole approach to music performance is about narrative. It’s about story.
‘I do feel music in dramatic terms,’ says Pappano, ‘It’s not the only way but there is certainly a hierarchy in music and that sense of narrative extends to myriad different balancing issues within the orchestra to achieve clarity, to bring the lines alive and to create an image of what we think is trying to be defined. In those terms I tend to work like that in my rehearsals, providing images and to cajole certain responses and that works for my orchestra.’
Admitting that as a youngster he ‘wasn’t such a record buff’ Pappano was unaware of the Decca operas when he took on the job in 2005, but in any case his first big opera recording with them – that 2009 Madama Butterfly with Angela Gheorghiu in the lead – was the first time the musicians had played that score since the Tebaldi recording in 1951. And, says Bucarelli, ‘he had a fight to make it work with them’.
‘Many of the people in the orchestra now haven’t played much opera but somehow they have it genetically wired into them,’ says the conductor. ‘If there’s someone in front of them who’s interested in that as a focus of how to bring an interpretation alive, it spills out of them naturally.’
In his time with Santa Cecilia Pappano has focused on two things above all and both are subtly connected to qualities associated with opera. ‘I wanted to stress their Italianita, to make that a strength’ he says. ‘When I got their they didn’t have a strong enough sense of identity, though Chung had prepared them well, but you needed to be able to hear them and immediately say, “That’s Santa Cecilia”. And that’s to do with a songfulness, with clarity and with thrust.’
‘And then I needed to get them to learn to listen to and accompany each other,’ he laughs. ‘That’s the greatest challenge with any orchestra but especially Italian orchestras. Italian musicians are individualistic, which means that bringing them together can be a very powerful thing – when they’re all in it together. And that’s all to do with musical hierarchy. Everyone wants to be the protagonist, all the time!’ Protagonist. Songfulness. These are all words of the opera house. He agrees. ‘I’m of the theatre. For me everything is theatre.’
Today Santa Cecilia has a recording contract with EMI that has produced a fine Rachmaninov Symphony No 2, a new Mahler 6, some Tchaikovsky, the (obligatory) Roman-themed Respighi and a Rossini William Tell as well as the vocal sets mentioned above. Assuming that the situation continues given the label’s recent sale to Universal Music Group (and Pappano, alongside Simon Rattle, is surely the most jealously guarded jewel in EMI’s classical division), Pappano is looking forward to being reunited with Kaufmann for another opera set, Verdi’s Aida, in the near future (for the Verdi anniversary in 2013, one would guess).
But the orchestra’s most immediate step forward in recording terms is a look back. With that Mahler 6 recently on the shelves, the orchestra has issued an eight-disc set of archive recordings. It’s the baby of Umberto Nicoletti Altimari, who runs that project. He was astonished, when researching a discography of the orchestra for its centenary in 2008, to find recordings long since forgotten. ‘This is for your English readers,’ he beams. ‘I found a recording with the orchestra by Sir John Barbirolli. Two Rossini overtures and his adaptation of music by Corelli.’ The Rossinis (L’assedio di Corinto and La gazza ladra) are in the box, as are the first-ever recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (with the orchestras first music director, Bernardino Molinari), some ‘fantastic’ pieces conducted by Victor De Sabata at the Vatican (including the Parsifal prelude which is not present anywhere else in his recording catalogue) and a Georges Pretre-conducted Brahms Third Symphony which apparently kept Pappano up, transfixed, in the middle of the night.
But when Bucarelli spoke of a dark period for the orchestra, he wasn’t exaggerating. As far as recordings go, says Altimari, ‘there were 20 years where not one note was recorded apart from the Decca opera recordings and then another couple of exceptions – Suor Angelica for RCA and a Domingo and Ricciarelli recital. So this symphony orchestra did not record one note of a symphony. In that time it was practically, and in terms of recordings, a silent orchestra.’ Now? They record everything.
The Mahler Eight I attend is magnetic, and magnificently dramatic. Everything, from the imposing strangeness of the Renzo Piano-built auditorium (and which, in a city where little of architectural consequence has been built since the end of World War Two, is bringing in new audience members out of sheer curiosity) to the immaculately choreographed placing of musicians, soloists and multiple choirs, not least Pappano’s turbo-charged brand of podium dramatics and their galvanizing effect on his massed forces, amounts to a profound sensory experience.
And that, Pappano told me recently (after the political upheavals in Italy), is the magic ingredient. ‘With Berlosconi out, with everything going on, we have to take every day as it comes. Shore up our private support like every orchestra, keep our friends loyal and treat our public well to build up a support system to weather any crisis. But we have to keep asking, are our programmes, our performances, vital, emotional, exuberant? That’s what Italians are all about. When someone there says they enjoyed your concert, they almost always talk about the emotions they’ve experienced. That’s the key. You can get over anything if people are moved to express something you have actually made them feel deeply within them.’
Listen below to De Sabata conduct the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in the Prelude from Wagner's Parsifal, from 1945.