An hour with Mario Venzago 

click to enlarge Mario Venzago
  • Mario Venzago

One of the most beloved music directors in the ISO's rather short pantheon since its founding in 1930 was Swiss born Mario Venzago. He replaced Raymond Leppard in 2002 and was in turn replaced by Krzysztof Urbański in 2011. Venzago, with his rough-cut-but-adorable English (he's fluent in German and Italian), is one of the most endearing musicians I've ever met. His sudden termination in 2009 created one of the more ignominious chapters in ISO history. But he has made a new life for himself in Bern, Switzerland.

NUVO: You're associated with wearing a red scarf most of the time you aren't conducting. How did that get started?

Mario Venzago: It started in Indianapolis in 2002, because of all this air conditioning in all these buildings. I was heartsick. Then I said: I must find the ability to warm up. Then, first time I started to wear a scarf during rehearsals, and it was a red one. And I started to like it. And I did it in other places. Since then I always wear my red scarf.

NUVO: How does it feel to be back with an orchestra, even if only for a week, who loved you perhaps more than any other music director they've played under?

Venzago: It's a strange feeling, and I have a little bit to protect myself--to have expectations. And I hope also that the orchestra will not be under pressure to have expectations from my side. It should be very free and very natural to meet each other again. It can be a farewell, because we never had a farewell. It can be a first step in a new relationship. I hope that I am totally free with my feelings and my emotions and that the orchestra will do the same.

NUVO: What have you been doing in the four years since you left here? Have you mostly been in Europe?

Venzago: When my position here ended so unexpectedly--or I should say so "hard"--I had no other music director position. And then an offer came from Bern [the Swiss capital]. And I said: This is a step back in the career. But I had to accept it, because I had nothing else. And I must say that it was the most happy decision I could make. In Bern, I have found a new relationship like I had in Indianapolis. I had much more possibilities because we had 42 new positions in the orchestra we could create. The orchestra now has 96 players. And I came at a time when we had to rebuild the orchestra. It has been a fantastic experience to me, and so I'm very very happy there.

And then I have two other orchestras in which I'm kind of music director: the Tapiola Sinfonietta--it's a small orchestra in Finland, but it's a world-class orchestra with 42 musicians. And I do the same job in England for the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra in Newcastle. I'm still guest conducting a lot, but I mostly go to the same orchestras. I'm regularly back in Baltimore every year or two.

NUVO: When you were here, your wife was first violist in the Heidelberg Symphony, and your two sons were around high school age. How have things changed from then?

Venzago: My wife is still first viola in Heidelberg. My younger son is now 23 years old. And I couldn't do anything to stop him from studying conducting. He's studying in Stuttgart. He wants to go to the opera more than the symphony. It's a hard profession--mostly when you are young, you have to fight a lot. My older son is a technician at Roche Pharmaceutical Company and is 27. And that is fine for me.

NUVO: How did you go about picking this weekend's program here: Mahler's Todenfeier, the Glazunov Violin Concerto and Schumann's Fourth Symphony?

Venzago: The Glazunov was already programmed, so I had to accept it. But it's a brilliant piece and not so often played. My favorite composer is not Mahler, it's Bruckner -- and Schumann. I could not do a Bruckner and Schumann symphony; this is too long a program. But there is one short piece by Mahler that's very Brucknerian. The score of Todenfeier is not "corrected" as it was in the revised score used in his second symphony. This is more in the Liszt tradition; more of a symphonic poem. For the second symphony he blew it up with a bigger orchestra. And he did a lot of the typical Mahlerian dynamics -- the colors more typical for Mahler's style. This first version sounds more like Liszt, or early Bruckner. My information is that it has never been played in Indianapolis before.

NUVO: I speak for the players as well as myself when I say that I hope you can arrange to return to conduct here as soon as possible.

Venzago: I'm at an age where I'm not interested in career any more; I'm interested in friendship. As I said at the beginning: This weekend can be a farewell; it can be a first step in a new future. And future means regularity. I'm not interested in guest conducting there and here, or to come every five or six years to Indianapolis. If the contact is good, I dream to have a certain regularity--what I call friendship--where I can bring my pieces, where I can teach them now where I am artistically, and where they tell me where they are artistically. Then it is a collaboration and an interaction; to give -- and to take; to learn -- and to teach.

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