Interview: Sesto Quatrini On His Conducting Style & Career Ambitions

By Alan Neilson

Sesto Quatrini made his Italian debut, conducting Verdi’s “Un giorno di regno,” at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, July 20, 2017, a little over one year ago. Since then he has debuted at, amongst other venues, La Fenice  and Verona. It has been a rapid rise for the young conductor who, at the age of 34, seems destined for the top. He now returns once more to Martina Franca to conduct Vaccaj’s “Giulietta e Romeo.”

OperaWire managed to catch up with the charismatic conductor for a short interview, which as it happened turned into a long interview, but a very interesting and insightful one.

OperaWire: When and why did you want to become a conductor?

Sesto Quatrini: It is difficult to identify an exact moment, but there are two factors in my life which I can see as pivotal. When I was young, I was always the leader of the group. This is important, as a conductor must have this characteristic; it is not easy to stand in front of 3,000 people and to have the self-confidence to bring the orchestra, singers and the audience around to accepting your interpretation. You have to believe in yourself, and you must be a leader.

The second factor relates to my years spent studying to be a composer. I studied composition for 12 years, but I didn’t have enough control over the music. I came to a point in which I realized that I was not listening to my work, someone else was interpreting my music, and I wanted it done differently. It is the same as when I listened to Chailly’s Brahms or Sawallisch’s Brahms, I felt, yes it is wonderful, it sounded so good, but I also knew that I wouldn’t do it like that. So it was a problem. I needed to become a conductor myself.

Operawire: What makes a good conductor?

Sesto Quatrini: There are many different elements involved. The first is preparation, because although you can bluff as a conductor, it is clear to music-lovers if you are are doing this. So it is important, especially for a young conductor, to prepare correctly, and to study a lot, because there are many things to do. The second is passion, by which I do not mean over-conducting. I mean the right passion – which is not the same as making big gestures, but is a passion for the job itself, a complete devotion to the job, to what you are doing. The third thing is breathing, and by this I mean physically. Because you have in front of you an orchestra, and the sound arrives physically. It is very erotic, you possess each other, the orchestra possesses you, you possess the orchestra and singers. Conducting is a very erotic act, and every erotic act needs passion, love, needs to breathe. Another element is magic; the best conductors in the world are the ones who succeed in creating magic during a performance. You can rehearse, you can focus on problems or work with sections of the orchestra, but during a concert there is something more you have to have. It is this phenomenon that identifies a person as a great conductor, it is something very esoteric. It is another level of reading. We are not talking about a conductor who stops the orchestra on cue, or ensuring everybody stays together, or beating the right tempi, in order to ensure the relationship between the stage and the orchestra is perfect. No it is something more – it is the magic! For example, I was in Carnegie Hall for a concert conducted by Valery Giergiev and I witnessed a great conductor, going beyond the mechanics of conducting, it was the magic. It is the same with Fabio Luisi; I followed his rehearsals of the “Ring” at the New York Met, but during the performance, it was different, there was something more. It was the magic. If you can create this “something more” you are a great conductor, if not you are just a conductor.

A few months ago I conducted Mahler’s 4th symphony, for the first time, in St Etienne. I wasn’t sure if I would be a good Mahler conductor, as it was, my first time. But at the end of the symphony I knew I could do it, because the soprano was crying. It was something magic. For 15 seconds there was silence, just the soprano crying, it was very moving. We had succeeded together, in creating something magical. If you can do this, you can consider yourself to be a conductor, an alchemist of music, a total artist. If you just conduct, then you are like basketball player, you go out, play your role and that’s it, finished – it is very depressing. I am not like that.

OW: How would you describe your own approach to conducting?

SQ: Very erotic for sure. I find eroticism everywhere, in food, in tastes, in architecture, in every scent I smell as I walk along the street, and of course, in music, and this has a positive impact upon me. Of course, during rehearsals, I am completely different. I am not very tolerant. I am tough, very severe, especially with myself and the orchestra. I have high expectations and I am attempting to achieve perfection. I know it isn’t possible, but this is what I aim for. So I am very serious during rehearsal. I demand precision from myself and the orchestra. But during the concert I need to create something different, something has to explode. To do this I need to smile, to breathe, as I am conducting for the audience, and I need to create an emotional intensity. The audiences pays and expects emotions, not just a cold performance. Every time you go to a “La Bohème” you want emotion, you want to die with Mimi. The conductor has to create this, and to do it you have to prepare, to study the musical text, because this is where the music lies.

OW: Which conductors, if any, have influenced you?

SQ: Firstly, Leonard Bernstein. He is the polar star, because his approach to music is completely orgiastic, completely Dionysian, and it is how I came to realize that eroticism exists in music. Watch the video of him conducting Haydn’s 88th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra without a baton, without anything, just facial gestures. It was a like a man and a woman, or man and a man, having a romantic dinner, and trying to understand each other. It is very sophisticated.

The other conductor who I think of as a god is Carlos Kleiber. He is the complete opposite. Bernstein is the Dionysian part, Kleiber is the Apollonian part. These are the two stars that remind me that I have a lot of work to do, if I am to reach the same level.

Then there are the Italian conductors, because I must not forget that I am Italian. Fabio Luisi, of course, is my mentor, he is more than a guru. I worked with him, and he taught me a lot of secrets, a lot of interesting things about self-analysis and conducting style. I took something from him, especially how to successfully deliver accompanied recitatives. Then there is Sinopoli, who has a very special place in my life. Muti remains a great musician, especially in Verdi. He is another conductor I follow. Then there is Abbado, especially in his last 15 years of his life, after his battle with cancer. He reached a level which will be very difficult to reach again, both with the Berlin Philharmonic and at Lucerne.

OW: Do you prefer conducting concert music or opera?

SQ: I love both, but at this moment in my life I very happy to do a lot of opera. Opera is much more difficult than symphonic music, which is also difficult, but then conducting in general is difficult. But opera conducting is more complete because you have to deal with so many elements, including the stage technicians. The voice, however, it is the most interesting instrument in the world, it is the most natural instrument, it is the most distinctive, it is our instrument, it is also the instrument of conductors. The voice is our primitive instrument, which everyone in the world has, and it is spiritual for me. When you breathing with the singer, when the musical phrase of a quartet or trio works, it so satisfying. Symphonic music is fantastic, but it is more technical.

OW: Do you have an area of speciality or one you would like to develop?

SQ: Now I am conducting a lot of opera, and I am Italian and so I have a deep knowledge of the Italian language, and the sound of the language, the history of the language, so I feel good in this repertoire. It is a good place for me to start my career. I wouldn’t claim to favor one particular composer such as Rossini or Puccini, Mascagni, or Zandonai. For sure, I don’t feel comfortable with baroque music because I am not a specialist. I don’t play the harpsichord because I have no time, and no time to study the repertoire. So I would like to start with Mozart, the Italian bel canto, in which there are still many jewels to be discovered. Of course, there is also Verdi and Puccini. I would say that, at the moment, it is the works of Verdi in which I can do my best.

OW: After Martina Franca you will be conducting “La Traviata” at La Fenice. Does the fact that it so well-known make it a bigger challenge than conducting Vaccaj’s “Giulietta e Romeo,” which has rarely been heard of?

SQ: Yes, but they are both very difficult. Conducting “La Traviata” at La Fenice will be very difficult because everybody knows and expects, or at least everybody thinks they know. They have a preconceived notion, and as soon as the conductor plays something they don’t recognize as the ‘right way’ to do it, they judge the conductor. It is difficult and it is a challenge. It is my job, however, to convince the audience that my interpretation is one of the possible ‘right’ interpretations. In Valle D’Itria it is different; we play operas that nobody has performed before, or have not for performed for maybe 200 years, and the challenge for me is to generate emotion, and to make the people feel that they know this music, and that they can relate to it. For sure, both situations are difficult and can be scary. When my manager calls me and says, “La Fenice are offering you 22 performances of La Traviata,” I think “Oh my God, maybe it would be better to do ‘Roberto Devereux,’” but I must deal with this situation. Next year I am conducting “Carmen” at the Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino. Everybody knows it, so it is challenge I must meet, and must win.

OW: What are your ideas for interpreting “La Traviata”?

SQ: It is important to say this: there are parts that when I conduct them makes me feel like a rock. It is incredible! In Italy we grow up with this music, we have it in our blood. My grandmother knows the entire repertoire and never studied music. I have my interpretation, I have my ideas, but my interpretation is always subjected to change, depending upon the vocal characteristics of the singers you have in front of you. And the singers are always first, the conductor is second! The singers have their own interpretations, their own qualities, and are not always in good physical shape; if they haven’t slept the night before, the interpretation has to be changed a little bit – their breathing will be different, they wont have the same power, the same mental state. If a conductor does not take this into consideration, they should work with midi voices. Some of my colleagues seem to prefer working with voices that are like computers, but it is not for me. I need to work with living voices, voices that change every night, even during the performance. So I cannot say how I want to interpret “La Traviata” if I have never worked with Lisette Oropesa, Stefan Pop or Markus Weber before. I will go there, see what materials I have to work with and will model my interpretation according to their voices and the way in which they see the music.

OW: How important is the Festival della Valle D’Itria for you?

SQ: I am devoted to the festival. The Festival bet on me, when I was nothing. Of course I am still a not an important conductor, but I am one of the young conductors who conducts a lot, and with some success. Alberto Tirola and Fabio Luisi brought me here. After the first season I was offered the cover for Luisi for “Francesca di Rimini,” and the Gala concert. The following year I was offered “Un Giorno di Regno” which was a great success, and the festival offered me the opening night in this year’s festival with “Giulietta e Romeo.” I feel part of the family here in Martina Franca with, of course, a responsibility to help improve the festival. It means lot to me to be here, so I told my manager, if Martina Franca proposes something, even if there is a more financially lucrative offer somewhere else, I will accept Martina Franca because Martina Franca is my home.

OW: Has Vaccaj’s “Giulietta e Romeo” been unjustly neglected?

SQ: It is one of history’s mistakes that Vaccaj disappeared from the repertoire. This opera is a masterpiece, and this is something I honestly believe, and not just because I am the conductor. There are at least six and seven numbers that are incredible, particularly the duet between Romeo and Giulietta “Oh, Quante volte” which is unbelievable. During the first rehearsal people were crying. Of course, there are two or three numbers that are not in the same class, and the recitatives are not as good as those of Mercadante or Mayr, which have a higher level of musicality and sense of theatre. Vaccaj was a great composer for voices and everybody studied his vocal methods. When writing, he took into account the vocal possibilities of the singers, so there are no risks for them. It is very difficult to sing, and not a lot of people can sing this repertoire, but his way of treating the vocal material is perfect, like Puccini I would say, both sound so natural, which is not always the case in bel canto. Everybody knows, for example, Rossini’s “Semiramide” and “La Donna del Lago,” and you immediately know that there is something not natural. It is wonderful to listen to, but it is difficult, the human voice is stretched to its limits. In the case of Vaccaj, however, everything has been written with to accommodate the voice. The orchestration also takes into account the human voice. Everything is subservient to the human voice. In some works the conductor sometimes needs to cut the sonority, changing it from forte to mezzo forte to help the voice, but Vaccai did most of this, so the job is already done. The conductor only needs to realize this.

OW: What are your aims for the future?

SQ: I would love to have the opportunity to conduct in the world’s most important theaters. My ambition is to return to the New York Met, where I started. It was the first theatre in which I worked as an assistant. I lived in New York for two and half years, so it remains in my heart. By returning there, I will close the circle. But, of course, I would love to conduct at La Scala, Covent Garden and Opéra la Bastille. It is where you can work with the best musicians and singers, and it will allow me to compare myself to the best.

Theses are my general ambitions, but my dream is to become a music director in my own country, in Italy, because opera in italy needs a change. I have a lot of ideas about repertoire and how to open up opera to a wider public. The theaters shouldn’t be like airport lounges. Opera must be open to the public, it should go to the hospitals and prisons and schools. Think of all the people who are suffering, the old, the sick and how much they would love to hear opera. I include the rich opera houses in this too because it is not just a business, it makes the world more human. We must open up the theaters to the city; not everyone can afford $400 for a show. We can open up general rehearsals for young people, but that is not enough. We need to explain that a conductor is a normal person who likes football, cars, went to the disco and swimming in the sea. The conductor is like them. He is not a monster or semi-divine. We must cut the snobbery associated with opera and open the doors. Also we need to change the repertoire a little. “Le nozze di Figaro” is fantastic, but how many “Figaro’s” do we need to see? We need to take more risks. It would be interesting. This is the dream I have for opera in Italy, and if Italy will bet on me, I will be happy. If it doesn’t happen, then I would be happy to become an artistic director in another country.


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