Guest conductor Carlo Rizzi
Carlo Rizzi’s will make his MSO debut this weekend, with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (with the MSO’s own Ilana Setapen as soloist); Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and Shostakovich’s grand, dramatic Symphony No. 5
Controversy has swirled around the Shostakovich symphony since its 1937 debut. Shostakovich was a rising Soviet culture star until he ran afoul of Communist authorities — and even Stalin personally — for avant-garde tendencies in The Limpid Stream ballet and an opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. He responded to the pressure and the very real threat of banishment to the Gulag with the Symphony No. 5. The subtitle: “A Soviet Composer’s Reply to Just Criticism.” The musical West regarded it for decades as hack work. But subsequent accounts of Shostakovich’s private bitterness and hatred toward the authorities have caused some critics to interpret this and many other Shostakovich works as veiled denunciations of the regime. The debate on the meaning of this and other works, particularly the string quartets, goes on.
“We can discuss that until the cows come home,” Rizzi said, at an interview Wednesday evening. “But what we have here is a very beautiful and powerful piece of music. It’s amazing to see a composer recovering from the shock of the threat of Siberia to manage to both please the Communist Party and still composer a masterpiece.”
The second movement, a scherzo, tilts toward the grotesque. You can certainly read it as Shostakovich’s satire of the happy-peasant dance music the Communists preferred. Rizzi thinks of it a little differently; he hears echoes of Mahler’s klezmer-influenced dance movements.
“So much of the sound of Mahler is in it,” Rizzi said. “I think of it as half Shostakovich and half Mahler.”
Rizzi, 50, holds the Fifth as a favorite and knows quite a bit about it. He noted that at the very end, the trumpets must hold very high notes for a long time, which stresses the players. Some conductors double-time that section.
“Leonard Bernstein did that, once with Shostakovich in the hall,” Rizzi said. “Apparently, he liked it.”
Stravinsky’s seven-minute suite, from 1915 and originally for piano four hands, is as playful and compact as Shostakovich’s symphony is dark and grand. The MSO has never played this suite before.
“I love Stravinisky’s suites, especially the second,” Rizzi said. “It’s interesting to hear how Stravinsky can put together so many different sounds with such small forces. I always smile when I do this piece. It’s fun. The trumpet and tuba play a very unlikely tune together. It’s funny.”
Rizzi, originally from Milan, has lived in Cardiff, Wales, for 19 years. The directorship of the Welsh National Opera — he held the post from 1992 to 2001 and again from 2004-2008 — brought him there. Family reasons kept him there. He plans to return to Italy when his youngest child, now 14, hits 18.
Rizzi’s parents were not musicians, but he took to music at first exposure, in a kindergarten music class. In those days, in Italy, the general high school held classes in the morning. The Milan Conservatory, a specialized high school, held classes in the afternoon.
“My parents weren’t so sure about music as a living,” Rizzi said. “They said I could go to the conservatory, but I also had to the regular school. It was good. I enjoyed both schools.”
The parents made the same bargain with Rizzi’s two siblings; all three ended up musicians.
In the conservatory, Rizzi played the oboe (badly, he said) and the piano (“pretty well”). He was a very good sight reader, so instrumentalists who needed an accompanist for exams and contests came to him in numbers. That made him realize that he liked the sociability of chamber music and was drawn to the particular sounds of the various instruments and the human voice.
“I was different than the usual piano student,” he said. “I didn’t want to spent hours alone with Chopin in a practice room.”
All of that made him gravitate toward conducting. He still remembers his first conducting class.
“I was 16, I didn’t understand anything,” he said. “You give the downbeat and you expect them to play. They didn’t.”
It might have had something to do with his teacher’s insistence on turning the natural lefty into a right-handed conductor. That was torture.
“I almost had to tie my left arm to my side,” he said. “Now, I’m grateful.”
Under the Italian music education system, you’re ready to start your career at 19 or so, when you graduate from the conservatory. Universities teach music history and aesthetics, but not practice.
After an intensive conducting course with Franco Ferrara at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena, and further study with Vladimir Delman in Bologna, he did well in some conducting competitions. He made his professional debut at age 22, in a Milan production of Donizetti’s L’ajo nell’Imbarrazzo. That led to other opera work around Italy, then all over Europe.
“The job is a little like being a theater director,” Rizzi said. “You don’t have to tell actors how to act. But you might say, ‘Try it this way.’ You have to make a decision and then sell that decision to the orchestra, with your arms and your eyes and sometimes speaking, and sometimes it’s just chemistry. The word ‘conductor’ comes from conducere. It means ‘to bring with you.’ This, for me, is what it’s all about.”
Concert times are 11:15 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18-19. Tickets are $25-$79 Friday and $25-$95 Saturday; call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605, or visit the MSO website.