Chailly: From the War Memorial to the Apex of Music

Janos Gereben on August 19, 2015
Riccardo Chailly, now, not then (Photo by Silvia Lelli)
Riccardo Chailly, now, not then (Photo by Silvia Lelli)

Just as there are claims by zillions to have been at Woodstock (actual attendance: 400,000), San Francisco Opera's famed 1977 Turandot premiere was apparently seen by at least 10 times of the War Memorial's 3,200 capacity.

I was there - I still have my ticket stub to prove it - and saw hundreds in the standing room, but surely not accommodating all those attendance claims. The reasons for wanting to have been there are numerous: role debuts for Montserrat Caballé as Turandot, Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf, with Leona Mitchell as Liù, and Prince Charles (still pre-Diana single) in attendance.

It also marked one of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's most dramatic productions, with a giant statue dominating the finale, and a shocking signal of Turandot's change of heart. Among the lesser-known participants: Riccardo Chailly, 24, conducting in his U.S. debut. It was one of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler's legions of operatic coups to put together this cast and engage a young, unknown Italian to lead the performance.

All these memories came flooding back when reading the New York Times report on the appointment of Chailly as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, following in the footsteps of the late Claudio Abbado, who revived the event originally founded by Arturo Toscanini. Chailly, 62, also succeeded Abbado this year as principal conductor of La Scala, adding that post to his continued work as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

His other recent appointments included the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic, Teatro Comunale of Bologna, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Chailly, the wunderkind leading a triumphant performance in the War Memorial, was the same age as Gustavo Dudamel when the Venezuelan first conducted at the BBC Proms, as a replacement for the indisposed Neeme Järvi; and a year younger than Leonard Bernstein when he substituted for Bruno Walter to lead the New York Philharmonic.

From age 20 on, Chailly was assistant to Abbado at La Scala, but he didn't make his conducting debut there until a year after the San Francisco Turandot. In a broadcast interview, Chailly spoke with palpable excitement about making his debut here, expressing hope that Adler will consider him for a future assignment.

Unfortunately that never happened as Chailly went on to international fame, which has kept peaking in the years that followed. Still, a third of a century after Turandot, at age 57, Chailly returned to San Francisco, but appeared in Davies Symphony Hall, not the Opera House, leading Gewandhausorchester on tour.

In another "local angle," the Leipzig orchestra at other San Francisco performances was led by Herbert Blomstedt, music director here 1985-1995. He headed the Gewandhaus from 1998 through 2005, when Chailly took over from him as Gewandhauskapellmeister - a title that can be traced back almost three centuries with one of the oldest orchestras in the world.