An exclusive interview with the new ISO conductorPhotos by Wilbur Montgomery The selection process had been winnowed down to three or four, in the early months of this year - or so the speculation went. Among the seemingly countless contenders for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra"s music directorship, following Raymond Leppard"s successful 14-year tenure, I had my picks; others had theirs. Despite the ISO players and staff being sworn to secrecy, a fairly consistent set of opinions emerged - beyond the salaried people of Indiana"s largest performing-arts organization. That made the pulses of all the interested parties quicken when the announcement date of April 29 was revealed about a month prior. Was it to be Emmanuel Villaume, Jun M”rkl or Mario Venzago - all viewed by us outsiders as among the likely candidates? It turned out Venzago was the choice.
Later that day, I was given 40 minutes to interview Venzago in his "new" second-floor Symphony Centre office, vacated nearly a year earlier by his illustrious predecessor. A 74-year-old Briton is replaced by a 53-year-old Germanic Swiss, whose knowledge of English is as tentative as Leppard"s is commanding. I"ve made no attempt in the following discourse to correct Venzago"s syntax or grammatical usage. He felt sufficiently unsure of himself for the ISO management to provide us a German-English lady translator. It turned out, however, that the conductor only lapsed into German at the end of two or three sentences, so that her assistance ended up being minimal. In a way, I found Venzago"s struggle speaking my tongue - though I had no difficulty understanding him - to be an endearing quality. Along with his ingratiating personality, it helped to define his persona in a most positive way. His deferential, soft-spoken nature seems somewhat at odds with someone who can and has commanded 100 plus players to do his exact bidding. As music director - now approaching his sixth season - of the Basel (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra, Venzago has proven, on recordings, that he has his players not so much under his control as under his spell. The difference can, I think, be gleaned from this interview. NUVO: Your name appears to be Italian, yet you"re a native of Zurich and were raised in the Germanic part of Switzerland? How did that happen? VENZAGO: I want to start with my mother; she is German - and my father is Italian. So I don"t have a drop of Swiss blood. But I feel Swiss. NUVO: How much conducting, in your career, have you done here in America? VENZAGO: I have a kind of post; I"m director of the summer music festival in Baltimore. It"s now my sixth year. It"s three or four weeks in the summer and a few weeks during the season. Before that I was here only as a guest conductor. I came only for these occasions - for to conduct - and have not traveled a lot. I don"t really know the United States; it"s so big country. NUVO: Your present ISO contract is for four years. Do you see yourself as having a residence here? VENZAGO: My family lives in Heidelberg, in Germany. My wife is in their orchestra as solo viola, and she"s a born orchestra musician. That"s a wonderful thing. She"s not an orchestra musician by frustration or like a soloist who didn"t reach his goal and then goes to the orchestra. And she does not want to give up her post. We have the residence in Heidelberg. I learned a lot by her ... from the inside ... of what it means to be orchestra musician. It"s one of the most difficult professions. This week you have to play all short. Next week another conductor comes; you have to play the same things long - and always with your whole identity. And so I have incredible admiration for orchestras. It"s very important for me. We will keep, in every case, this [Heidelberg] residence, and our two sons goes to school there. But I want to find a residence for me, here in Indianapolis; I can"t live in a hotel. I want to feel ... here, to create here - something new. Also for my life. NUVO: Would you prefer a house close to downtown, or farther out? VENZAGO: I"m not a driver; I can"t drive. So I must be very near to the hall. But you never know what happens later; perhaps sometimes the family comes over. But we have to go step by step. The first step is: The family lives in Heidelberg; I look for a house here, near the hall. NUVO: Symphony programming is usually done two or three years in advance. Since you"re only conducting three concert programs this coming season, I assume someone else programmed it. Have you, as yet, done any programming for the following one? VENZAGO: This coming season is done by [ISO president] Dick Hoffert and [former ISO artistic administrator] Ron Merlino - this wonderful "American pieces" season. I accept it a hundred percent; it"s a wonderful program. The next season - 2003-2004 - it was completely empty, but we have now done my concerts and have done the conductors we want to invite. We have done a lot of the pieces; so it"s half done. I did some of it in Heidelberg. I don"t want to prescribe for the guest conductors. I don"t say: Come and do this and this and this, because I want that the guest conductors come with their best pieces. Of course I sometimes have to take big influence, and have to say: No, this piece is not possible, or this makes not sense. I"m against programmation with titles. You never will hear from me ... have program like the water in the music, or the fire, or the nights. I don"t like these things. Every evening must be an event. Every evening must be built by itself, but it must connect musically together. We have to find connection points in the music itself. The other things: That"s literature; that"s not music. NUVO: Let"s talk a little more about repertoire. Have you had a chance to see the programming that we"ve done in recent years? VENZAGO: Of course, of course. NUVO: Do you plan to make any general changes in laying out repertoire? We"ve tended to be very conservative here, which has some economic considerations in drawing an audience. I think maybe here in the Midwest the audiences are more conservative. VENZAGO: No, no, not only here. [laughs] It"s the same, even in Europe. I had an outstanding situation in Basel - with Paul Sacher, who"s a "metropole" of modern music and of pictures also - modern exhibitions. I also had a lot of time as a guest conductor with Pierre Boulez [a former New York Philharmonic music director and an avant-garde microtonalist composer]. But in all the world it"s the same situation. The public don"t really like to have too much modern music. I have a conception - a vision. If you give me the time, I must start a little bit further away - with this vision. It"s a "sound" vision I have. I dream that we can merge two opposite positions we actually have in the music world. I dream that the orchestra has the dolce, espressivo sounds that the German orchestras had between the two [world] wars. This is my ideal. And the other side: I love [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt, and I love the musicians that play the periodic instruments. [Note: Harnoncourt has, for several decades, conducted early-music ensembles using either original "period" instruments or their recently built replicas.] Because there you can understand the grammar of the music, and the syntax; it speaks enormously. This "speaking" music gives an incredible emotion. It"s time now ... to bring together these two components: this Romantic sound for orchestra and this possibility to "speak" clearly - to make big emotion, like Harnoncourt and his people. I want to bring these two together; that"s my mission. That means the orchestra must be able to be equally flexible. Because, for the "speech" music, you must use kind of a rubato. I dream that an orchestra can do it like one single person. I never want musicians to produce "stable" sounds. It must come and go. There"s another aspect: You can get this only from musicians when they know exactly what you want. You can"t order these musicians. I always said my baton is only a piece of wood; musicians make the music. But they must know your vision. So we have to become - as fast as possible - very familiar [with each other] on the artistical level. Because you can"t beat it; you can show it, and they have to follow. It"s another conception - this beaten music must have a high technical level. I have to say to Raymond Leppard: Thank you, thank you. The orchestra is in a wonderful state. NUVO: Do these two approaches to conducting you"ve discussed relate to the way you view music in general? VENZAGO: Music is an art who is connected by the emotion. But music for me is also an scientific research. It has to be researched. You have to find new possibility of expression, new possibility of forms. Then, when you go forward, forward, forward - you research on new possibilities - the past will shine in completely another light. And it will change the interpretation of the traditional works. And we have to change it; otherwise we will have only the museum. NUVO: Would you say this view reflects that of, say, Wilhelm Furtw”ngler - to give an example of a great German conductor who worked between the two world wars? VENZAGO: I have problems with Furtw”ngler; I read his book about making music. Because he only sees music in a very magic - in a very subconscious - way. That"s a part of the music I love. But I think also that the scientific part is very important - like Boulez does. So if you can combine these two things, it would be marvelous. I would like to be an emotional intellectual conductor. That is what I want; and I would like the orchestra to also go with me in this direction. NUVO: As you now know, our orchestra has 87 players. Do you have a desire to increase that number to perform properly the kind of repertoire you would like to do here? VENZAGO: My Basel orchestra has 126 players. [laughs] But ... here my idea is absolutely different. These 87 musicians we have ... and it"s absolutely secure we will have it also in the next year ... that"s wonderful. I"m against to have a bigger orchestra - then we must have a bigger hall. The size of the orchestra ... and the hall ... is perfect together. And one thing more: It"s my repertoire. I have conducted a lot of Strauss - these big things. It"s not my favorites. We will do it sometimes, but not that often. NUVO: How significant will choral music be in your programming? VENZAGO: I can"t answer on this question because I don"t know the chorus. I beg your pardon, but I haven"t enough informations till now, at the moment. I like choral works, and I have always worked out an "own" version of the Missa Glagolitic by Jan·cek, and I have an own version, you know, from Stravinsky Les Noces (The Wedding). But these are so difficult pieces - incredible difficult pieces. NUVO: When Raymond Leppard first came here, I asked him if he would ever consider doing Les Noces, and he said absolutely not; that"s not a piece for an orchestra. It calls for too few players. VENZAGO: No, but now, this version we have found, and we have in Basel - in the Sacher collection, is for big orchestra. NUVO: No one here has ever done very much with the Haydn "London" symphonies (nos. 93-104). Since the ISO now has its Basically Baroque series, it may be that that is where they belong - since the series just ended with an all-late Haydn program. All 12 of those symphonies are masterpieces, and they just don"t find their way in symphony programs much. What are your views? VENZAGO: I love the whole Haydn. I love also the first 50 symphonies. They are perhaps the most undervalued pieces at the time. They were real tryouts - what he did in these symphonies; nobody plays it. For me it"s the problem: The normal orchestras says "no" - that"s a repertoire that goes too Baroque, and it goes to the orchestras with the period instruments ... authentic excellence. The period instrumentalists - for them - they can"t really plan it. So ... it"s a little bit a lost repertoire. The Haydn is, for me, a lost repertoire. And that"s really a sad fact. They are stylistically difficult for modern orchestras. Difficult also sometimes for the public, because it"s not ... event. Sometimes this music is too intelligent for to be consumed. NUVO: Though I would suspect the public would accept these more readily than they would, say, [Arnold] Sch–nberg"s Violin Concerto [one of the thorniest examples of 20th century 12-tone music]. VENZAGO: But ... now you named Sch–nberg. I dream ... that"s also a mission - part of the same mission - to bring some pieces of Sch–nberg and [Alban] Berg. Not just now ... step by step. The Verkl”rte Nacht (Transfigured Night). NUVO: Well that piece has been done here a number of times, both in chamber and orchestral venues, because it"s early Sch–nberg and has an accessible, post-Wagner sound to it. VENZAGO: Ja! But it"s very important piece. And to combine it with Second Chamber Symphony. It"s also atonal. It"s so incredible piece. And also: his Orchestral Variations. And Berg: if you think of his Op. 6 Three Orchestral Pieces. Always when I do it, it"s an incredible success. But public are so afraid. First they have to trust me. They have to learn who I am, and not somebody who wants to go against them. And when they trust, then I can bring these things. Also for them ... acoustic vision, Sch–nberg must be played ... like Brahms - and not like modern music. It"s the warmest sound I ever have heard in Sch–nberg. I did a lot of him; he"s one of my favorite composers. It can sound like an ¸ber-Brahms. NUVO: Do you think you"d ever want to do an occasional "light" concert, as in our Pops series? VENZAGO: I would like to do something light, but in the classical series. I would like to start my season with a Rossini program. NUVO: I understand when you appeared here late last October and early November, the players especially liked your rehearsal technique. Can you describe briefly what you do that may be special, or different, in that way? VENZAGO: I think rehearsals are very important - for an orchestra. When I start with the orchestra, I have to explain a lot. I try to entertain ... them ... in a good way. Because I wanted to have them on an emotional base, an emotional site, to engage them. Not technical, because they know when they are not together. That"s my technique to engage them. And then I also bring a lot of emotion in, but always with a goal. I define, at the beginning, where we want to go. Then we go, really, step by step, so everybody can judge where we are. But that"s the beginning. At the end, in four years, I would like that we are on the point that Claudio Abbado now is with his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He says, "Could you?" And everybody knows what he means. That would be entertainment ... on highest level. The first of Mario Venzago"s three appearances this season will occur this Nov. 1 and 2. His program will open with two Rossini overtures and follow with the Victor Herbert Second Cello Concerto - with soloist Lynn Harrell - and Dvorak"s "New World" Symphony.