Some audiences and critics wonder why you do not do more opera. Is it a
problem of time, affinity or other factors?
Chailly: My choice is to be a symphonic conductor in Amsterdam. I am here from twenty-three to twenty-five weeks a year. In addition, I am taking over a new orchestra, the Orchestra symphonica Giuseppe Verdi, a five-year-old orchestra of young musicans between 18 and 25 years old. This is not a youth orchestra, but a professional orchestra of young musicians. In Italy not enough attention is given to the symphonic tradition and we will have a new hall. The ten years in Amsterdam have given me the solidity in my bones to build something special with this young orchestra in Milan. Moreover, in mid-1999 we will have a new auditorium built for us out of private money, otherwise we would never have gotten it, knowing Italy. We have just formed a new Giuseppe Verdi Chorus led by Romano Gandolfi, former chorus master of La Scala. All of this is demanding in conducting time, auditioning, etc. I have to choose, so I do very little opera, only in Amsterdam with the Netherlands Opera and the Concertgebouw, every two years, and La Scala in Milan.
JR: When conducting opera from the pit, have you ever felt the need to close your eyes to what's happening onstage?
Chailly: Fortunately not! Because I discuss the project before I find myself in the theatre. Such situations end in meetings at my home north of Milan. Beautiful projects have collapsed during such meetings, and I am glad they did. If I decide to go ahead with a modern project such as the last production of Tosca in Amsterdam with Nikolaus Lehnhoff, it is because I am convinced about it. Funnily enough, it was one of the greatest successes we had at the opera thus far. Opera needs to be renewed in terms of what people see, but with great care and attention to changes.
JR: Edgard Varèse was such a marvellous composer. Why such a delay in acceptance by musicians and audiences? After all, his experiments with percussion are not radically new given that percussion served as the basis for music in Africa and Asia for centuries.
Chailly: Ionisation is considered the opening of a new chapter in music: how to translate percussion into melody, rhythm into melody, timbre into melody. This was the idea of Ionisation, and I am not surprised that in Frank Zappa's book he talks about Varèse as the "illumination." Zappa would test friends and new acquaintances withIonisation in his living room. To those who said it was nonsense, Zappa would say, " arrivederci " and kick them out of the house . The reason for the delay with public and musicians is the modernity of the language. Varèse's music still sounds modern, it doesn't sound dated.
JR: Granted, but why is it so complicated to assimilate it into mainstream concert programmes?
Chailly: It is complicated to perform and the difficulties are considerable for both conductor and orchestra soloists.
JR: But there are excellent orchestras in Europe. In America there are brilliant orchestras who can read anything.
Chailly: Laziness and lack of integrity of conductors. The point is not that Varèse was so ahead of his time. He still is, but this is no reason to be afraid of him. Many of my colleagues are not interested in what happened even before the Second Vienna School. This is a tragedy. To choose to conduct Varèse is an adventure and enormous risk. Technically and musically Varèse is complicated. Furthermore, you don't know what your audience will be, if any. But it is a challenge and a risk to be taken. How many of my colleagues do this, apart from the great maestro Boulez.
JR: Your interpretive vision of Varèse strikes me as very different from that of Boulez .
Chailly: Oh yes, I would say almost 180° opposite! But that does not mean that I do not have admiration for the man. As a conductor, he is a reference point for me.
JR: Do the agents and impresarios share your enthusiasm for Varèse? Can you tour with Varèse?
Chailly: Well, I will go back to Philhadelphia in the year 2001 to bring back the original version of Amériques where it was born in 1936. Frankly, I find it a bit strange that they need to have an Italian conductor to pursue the idea. Incredible! Stokowski at the time was in America while Mengelberg was in Amsterdam and they had full proof of the challenges and the risks and sometimes the revolutions those concerts provoked. Stokowski had to battle for The Robert Browning Overture of Ives, one of the greatest pieces ever written in American music.
JR: Do you consider American concert programmes conservative?
Chailly: Yes. I am very sorry about that, because I have a very high opinion of American orchestras and I have a strong relationship with the Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra as a guest conductor. I like to challenge those great orchestras with these programmes. In fact, I am doing the Robert Browning Overture in Philadelphia shortly, which I think has not been done there since Stokowski conducted it. It is important to highlight great composers of our century with the right compositions. I think Varèse was possibly misunderstood in America, although all of his pieces received their premières in New York, a city which still rejects his music.
JR: And why do you think this is? Is it the public, the agents, culture barons, media?
Chailly: There is the tendancy in New York to say that he is an "unpopular" composer, therefore we better not bother with him. This is a very narrow-minded, almost ignorant attitude given the quality of the compositions.
JR: You mentioned earlier that some living composers are already sounding dated. Could you be more specific?
Photos : Top - Paul Huf / Decca : Centre - Bettmann Archive