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Man with a Mission – Francesco La Vecchia talks to Jeremy Siepmann

July 1, 2011

Francesco La Vecchia

To say that Francesco La Vecchia is synonymous with Italian music would be stretching a point. Life, let alone musical life, is never that simple. Indeed the very term ‘Italian music’ is next to meaningless. Italy was effectively the cradle of European music. For centuries the only language (the only verbal language) known to music was Latin. And our musical terminology to this day is dominated by Italian: concerto, sonata, aria, opera, allegro, andante, crescendo, diminuendo, rallentando, prestissimo, spiccato, legato, pizzicato, col legno…the words and terms come tumbling out in inexhaustible profusion. The Italian repertoire is the oldest and largest in existence. Much of it is among the best known and most performed in the world. Palestrina, Monteverdi, Corelli, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi are all household names. They need no special pleading. How different from the many Italian composers of the late 19th and early 20th century who worked for decades in relative obscurity, neglected in their own country as much as in the outside world. This is where La Vecchia comes in. For some considerable time he has devoted a large part of his energies to righting this wrong. At home and around the world he has flown the flag of his great compatriots, expanding horizons wherever he goes. Yet this was not a cause that gripped him early. Nor did he always aspire to conduct.

‘That’s true. I actually came to it rather late. My first instrument was the classical guitar (hardly an orchestral instrument!) and of course I also studied piano. For many years I was completely absorbed by my studies—first instrumental; then, more broadly, the humanities; then composition. It was only when I’d completed my composition studies and started writing a lot of music of my own that I thought I should have some serious training in conducting. That’s when I met my teacher Franco Ferrara, with whom I studied for more than six years. In 1981, after I’d been with him for two years, he encouraged me to found my own orchestra. So it was that I became the Principal Conductor of the Accademia Internazionale di Musica of Rome.’

And who, apart from Ferrara, were the greatest influences on his development as a musician? ‘The first great influence on me was my maternal grandfather—a wonderful musician, and a highly cultivated devotee of philosophy and aesthetics. Under his guidance I studied everything from Bach to Schiller, from Schoenberg to Adorno, and so on. Ferrara I’ve already mentioned; but there was also Goffredo Petrassi. In one way or another, I worked with both these men for 20 years, and it was a constant intellectual stimulation. The other really big influence was the truly extraordinary personality of Leonard Bernstein, whom I was able to observe closely in Vienna, America and Rome.’

Has he, I wondered, benefited from (or been in any way shaped by) his experience of chamber music? ‘At 18, as you know, I founded the Quintetto Boccherini, with whom I played hundreds of concerts all over the world.  The training I received from that very important experience was vital to me in many ways, teaching me, among other things, to look beyond my instrument, to widen my view of the world’s musical heritage, and most importantly of all, to learn more about its extraordinary repertoire. And of course you can’t play chamber music for long without its sharpening your ears.’

The idea that chamber and symphonic music are fundamentally different in kind is not one La Vecchia shares. Nor, more particularly, does he find them distinguished by scale. ‘I don’t find such great differences, actually. I really don’t. You certainly can’t generalise about, say, the complexity of symphonic music as compared with the greater simplicity of chamber music. Just think, for example, of the Beethoven ‘Grosse Fuge’ Quartet, Op 133—or Schoenberg’s Quintet for wind instruments. Nor do you get far contrasting the “gigantism” of some symphonic literature with the intimacy of chamber music. As always here, I find myself falling back on analogies with figurative art: Leonardo da Vinci painted both “La Gioconda”, a picture of a few tens of centimeters and the fresco “Cenacolo” in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milano. The disparity in size is enormous, but the attention to detail, like the identity of the artist, is the same. Leonardo is always Leonardo, Beethoven is always Beethoven. I don’t see that the scale of a work or the number of performers can be an element of serious conceptual interest. I find it more interesting to observe the diversity of musical forms and their development—though the distinctions here are purely structural and stylistic; they tell us nothing of the music’s purely qualitative value.’

As one of the most active champions of modern Italian music, La Vecchia looks at his nation’s present-day culture with a vibrant (and sometimes ambivalent) combination of regret, celebration and hope—especially in the realm of orchestral music. ‘For many decades our national heritage was neglected to the point where our great composers, such as Casella, Malipiero, Busoni, Martucci, Dallapiccola, Petrassi, Ghedini and many others, were virtually unknown—the proverbial prophets without honour in their own country. When, ten years ago, I became Artistic Director and Resident Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma [Rome Symphony Orchestra], I pledged myself to address this situation. My principal objectives were 1) to perform about 90 concerts every year in Rome; 2) to make major international tours, and 3) to constantly be conducting and recording a large part of the Italian symphonic repertoire. Everywhere we go, I promote the great Italian symphonic composers just mentioned, alongside works by Shostakovich, Strauss, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and all the rest of the great symphonic composers. Today, our public is getting really familiar with this music, and I hope the works I’m conducting for Naxos’s “19th/20th Century Italian Classics” series will soon represent an important, indeed global, reference for understanding these hitherto neglected composers, who were intent on breaking away from opera’s dominance in Italian musical life by composing orchestral and chamber works of their own or programming new or unfamiliar works by other composers. Of course what I hope most of all is that this music will find a place in the repertoires of many orchestras, around the world. Indeed this is already beginning to happen, which makes me very happy.’

Even so, to the great majority of music lovers outside Italy, the two composers most concerning us today are largely if not totally unknown quantities. For La Vecchia, on the other hand, they’re lifetime companions. Franco Ferrara, as we’ve seen, was his teacher and mentor; Casella was part of his musical landscape almost from the beginning: ‘I was engaging with Casella’s music long before I began conducting, starting from when I studied his “Pupazzetti” for piano; then I studied his fundamental book The Modern Technique of the Orchestra; and when I did start my conducting career, I began to discover the full extent of his orchestral music. I particularly remember conducting his Concerto Op. 69, the Elegia Eroica and the Pagine di Guerra. Around the same time, I also presented Petrassi’s Partita for Orchestra and the eight Concerti for Orchestra, and Martucci’s First Symphony, Second Piano Concerto, Notturno and Novelletta. All this was a great revelation for me. My life as a performer has always been deeply marked by the study of Italian and international contemporary music. This year I had the great privilege of recording with my Orchestra Casella’s entire symphonic work, as well as conducting all ten of Mahler’s symphonies. I think Casella would have approved!’

And how would La Vecchia place Casella stylistically for music lovers unfamiliar with his output? ‘Well, he was born in Turin, in 1883, moved to Paris in 1896 and there became a student of Fauré. He studied Strauss, Mahler and Ravel in great depth, and along with Martucci, Sgambati, Mancinelli, Respighi, Pizzetti and Malipiero he was one of the prime movers in the great re-awakening of Italians to their musical heritage and potential for contemporary vitality. He listened to and learned a lot from Ravel and Stravinsky, later also from Bartók and Schoenberg, bringing a very characteristic personal elegance to his use of atonality near the end of his life (most notably in the Missa solemnis pro pace and the Sei Studi, Op. 70). He was also a formidable communicator and organiser. He went through several stylistic phases, some derivative, some highly individual. While not being strictly a neo-classicist, he succeeded in recovering a key part of the formal and expressive traditions of Italian music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably in works like the very engaging Scarlattiana (following the example of Stravinsky’s Pergolesian Pulcinella).’

What is it for La Vecchia that makes Casella most rewarding to listen to, and to conduct? ‘While I’m always very happy to listen to good music of any kind, I always prefer to conduct it! It’s such a privilege to live fully “inside” the music. I’m passionate about studying the performances of other musicians, but, inevitably, it’s more exciting to conceive one’s own interpretation. As for Casella in particular, his music absorbs and reflects pretty well all the formal and stylistic components of early twentieth century Europe (from late German Romanticism to French Impressionism) while remaining a sophisticated and distinctive “voice” of conspicuously Italian origin. This is one of the elements I loved from the very start of my acquaintance with his music. Another is the depth with which he portrayed the national character through folkloristic Italian popular music. In addition to the bright and sparkling features celebrated throughout the world, Casella revealed the tragic and expressive elements behind such popular dances as the Siciliana and Tarantella. In the last years of his life his music became simpler, leaner, finding a purity and what I might call even a solemnity of style, zeroing in on the essence of the thoughts and feelings he was expressing. This is particularly evident in the Missa Solemnis Pro Pace, which is generally considered his artistic last will and testament (we’re talking here about 1944 at the end of World War II; Casella died in 1947). In this composition, he goes so far as to contemplate the most extreme pain.’

Not the least of Casella’s virtues is his skill and versatility as an orchestrator. ‘Absolutely right. In fact he wrote a very famous book on instrumentation. Berlioz wrote an important one before him, so did Rimsky-Korsakov, but Casella’s treatise remains one of the most important of all educational works on instrumentation and conducting. During his studies in Paris, where instrumentation is concerned, Casella was influenced by both Ravel and Debussy. And I’ve already mentioned Strauss and Mahler. Equally influential, though, was his lifelong interest in folk music and baroque counterpoint. His orchestration is remarkably multi-faceted and flexible: versatile and intimate but at the same time solemn and ironic, self-confident and triumphant. In his larger orchestral works he embraces virtually all the available instruments, including organ, celesta, piano, harps and a large percussion section (with the bells always on top). A good example of his capacity to mix different tonal colours to extraordinarily subtle effect is the mystical Epilogo of the Second Symphony, where the combination of organ and violins, commenting on a quotation from Dante’s Divine Comedy, creates an indescribable inner peace, even in the simple articulation of a single stepwise progression (dominant - tonic). Another interesting example is in the Elegia Eroica, where he applies the principle of superposition, one instrumental group overlaying another starting with dark strings alone, then adding a small brass section, then four flutes, then all the violins, then bass clarinet and contrabassoon. And then we get the whole orchestra at full throttle, going from the bass (including 10 double basses with additional strings) to the flutes in their highest register. This is really amazing.

‘Equally so is the Third Symphony—as listeners to our new release will be able to hear for themselves. It’s a really extraordinary work, which I chose for the climax of the Rome Symphony Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2010. It was composed in 1940 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and calls for a very large orchestra. It’s in the usual four movements (Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, Rondo) and develops its themes with a formal rigour that testifies more to Casella’s grounding in late German Romanticism than to either his French or Italian heritage. In many ways it’s a striking example of his determination to write music, in his own words, which is “baroque in its monumentality, inspired by the magnificence of the baroque in Rome, with its sense of freedom, fantasy and violent contrast, and its feeling for relief and chiaroscuro—directly descended from the greatest ancient Roman art.”’

And what about the more recent but lesser-known Ferrara, to whom La Vecchia acknowledges a lifelong debt? ‘Immediately after his death, I was invited by Gian Carlo Menotti to perform the world premières of three of Ferrara’s works at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto—the same three, in fact, that make up our forthcoming Naxos CD. The compositions reveal a steely traditionalist, whose works are full of skilled, late-romantic orchestration and always attentive to formal balance. It’s beautiful writing—calm, melancholic and rhapsodic by turns. Many great conductors, such as Bernstein and Furtwängler were also fine composers, and Ferrara followed in that tradition. This CD is a small tribute to a great musician in the centenary year of his birth, and I’m sure many people around the world will be fascinated to discover his symphonic language.’

With La Vecchia’s tireless and dedicated championing behind it, that would seem to be a safe bet.

More recordings by Francesco La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony

Francesco La Vecchia Biography & Discography

Rome Symphony Orchestra Biography & Discography


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