Hong Kong to enjoy Verdi, Prokofiev and Shostakovich programmes under one of the world’s hottest conductors

Gianandrea Noseda was booked for the Arts Festival before the recent accolade and appointment that have propelled him into the stratosphere of the classical world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 5:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 3:00pm

Last year, Musical America, the United States’ oldest classical music magazine, voted “the fiery 50-year-old” Gianandrea Noseda conductor of the year. Last month, the Washington-based National Symphony Orchestra named the Milan-born Noseda its next music director; he will take over in the 2017-18 season.

It is good timing for Hong Kong. Even before those announcements, Noseda was already booked to appear at the Hong Kong Arts Festival for two concerts next month, conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino in Verdi’s Requiem on March 3 and an all-Russian programme on March 4.

SEE ALSO: Verdi’s classic opera Simon Boccanegra making its Hong Kong debut

We are in the backstage of the historical Teatro Regio in Turin, northern Italy, where he has been music director since 2007, just before he conducts a performance of Aida. In the background are the sounds of sopranos warming up, announcements over the PA system, and people popping their heads round the door. “Maestro …?” they ask urgently.

It will be only his second appearance in Hong Kong, he says, and the first – 18 years ago with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra, at which he had just started as principal visiting conductor – was a whirl.

“I remember the previous day I was conducting in Madrid. So I took a plane through London. I arrived in Hong Kong at 11 in the morning. They put me in the most luxurious and beautiful hotel but I was there for just 40 minutes to take a shower.

“At two I started rehearsal with the singers, at three I had a rehearsal with the orchestra. I did the performance at 7.30. Then when I finished a car took me back to the plane as the next day I had to start rehearsals in Santander in Spain.

“So what do I remember of Hong Kong? Nothing. I arrived, I conducted, I left. So this time I will stay at least three days …”

Last time in Hong Kong he also conducted Verdi’s Requiem. “Maybe I can do it better this time, I don’t know,” he quips. “I do conduct many other pieces though, not just the Requiem. This is just a coincidence.”

His other programme in Hong Kong is Shostakovich’s ninth symphony and Prokofiev’s delicious Alexander Nevsky; an all-Russian evening requested by the Arts Festival because Noseda, although Italian, is regarded as a great expert in the Russian repertoire.

In 1997, he was appointed to conduct at the Mariinsky Theatre for three months a year, he explains. “I stayed for 10 years, and there I was responsible mainly for the Italian repertoire but I was later asked by Valery [Gergiev, the orchestra’s conductor] to also do the Russian repertoire, German repertoire, French repertoire, ballet, opera … everything.”

The apartment where he was housed by the theatre was also where many of the other actors and musicians were living.

“So I could really experience the Russian life, not as a tourist but as a citizen. I could walk in the streets, I could go to the market to buy food, I could speak Russian to people. So when I now approach Russian music I feel at ease with it. And doing the Alexander Nevsky cantata and the Shostakovich Symphony No 9 takes me back to that experience, which was a turning point of my professional and personal life.”

A key thing he learned about the Russian way of performing is how they tell a story through the music.

“The Russians are great storytellers. Even if they have to tell you the story about that music desk” – he points to a random desk in his office – “even with that they can just tell you the story for 25 minutes and everybody will listen, thinking that is the best music desk in the world. Actually it isn’t, but they are able to enchant, to keep the tension alive.”

And that is why Russian musicians – “like Valery, like Sviatoslav Richter, like David Oistrakh, all these great soloists … Rostropovich” – became so great. Because they were able to tell the story in the music as if it were a drama, he says.

There are other things he learned about Russian music: “There is a particular colour of the sound which is made by big legato, big sense of articulation, big sense of ensemble but also great flexibility in performing.”

Shostakovich’s ninth symphony was commissioned in 1943 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s expected victory over Nazi Germany. It took two years to complete and was first performed by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra in what is now St Petersburg in 1945.

“It was not really well received by the Soviet dictatorship because Stalin wanted something big to celebrate the victory and instead Shostakovich produced the shortest of his symphonies with a sort of joyful element,” Noseda says.

“The second movement is not joyful at all but there is still a sort of hope … And the recitativo with the bassoon, and then the trombones making a sort of joyful rondo, in the fourth movement is one of the most beautiful in the history of music.

“It was nothing that Stalin was expecting. But Shostakovich was a genius who decided to go in this direction … to celebrate the future.”

Noseda’s style of conducting is one of extraordinary energy and waving of the arms, showing a focus that – when he had conducted the orchestra in Mahler the evening before we met – had certainly seemed to enchant the entire audience.

“While I still have energy I can use it …” he says. “I know many colleagues will get an even better result than me by doing less … I try to reduce [the amount I move around] but I have very long arms and very long legs.

“For a shorter person with shorter arms it’s easier to minimise movements because the energy comes from here,” he says, pointing to his midriff. “I try to convey energy to the players, and when they give me back the energy in turn it is so rewarding.”

The previous night he had yelled out in one of the movements. “Yes,” he says, laughing. “I thought, what is this bloody noise? And then I realised it is me.”

The performance of Aida starts in 20 minutes. How does he prepare?

“I will take off my T-shirt and trousers and I will dress in my suit,” he says. “I will open the score just to try to convince myself that I know it. I know I should know it but not enough. And just five minutes before the performance I will feel a big sense of wanting to sleep.

“I will surprise myself just before the performance with a huge yawn. And then I will go out in front of the orchestra, and I will feel quite awake.”

Teatro Regio Torino chorus and orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Verdi Messa da Requiem Mar 3, 8pm. Shostakovich Symphony No 9 and Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky, Mar 4, 8pm. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Tickets from HK$450 to HK$1,080. Inquiries: 2824 2430