Luisotti's Dreams Come True in the Pit, on the Podium
When I first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago, it was like a dream. Here I am — a modest man from a small Italian village. In my village there is not always much hope — you are not encouraged to see yourself make a big career.
You do not think that someday you will work with Scala or San Francisco or Berlin. So when I stand there in the Philharmonie with these musicians, I am already living my dream. And when we have a success together, well, it was almost unbelievable to me. Here I was standing and applauding to the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic and they were tapping their bows and smiling back at me. It was a dream come true.
San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti is a modest man, far away from the persona or caricature of a Maestro. When he talks about his Berlin Philharmonic triumph, you believe every bit of the excitement and humility — there is no acting, nothing phoney about the man.
Although here he is known as an opera conductor — from his initial sensation here in 2005 with La Forza del Destino through his recent work as company music director — Luisotti has also had an international career as a conductor of symphonic orchestra, including some of the biggest. The modest native of Tuscany is also the principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony.
So Luisotti is now taking the San Francisco Opera Orchestra across the Bay Bridge, to Cal Performances on Oct. 28 to play Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies; he returns in June with works by Prokofiev, Boccherini, and Cherubini.
He sees no daylight through the alleged separation between the approach to opera and concert performances:
When I came to San Francisco for that first Forza, I knew from that minute that this orchestra should have a chance to be the star center-stage. I started talking about this immediately with [SFO General Director] David Gockley and I am so happy that we are now able to showcase the wonderful orchestra on stage as the star.
Playing the symphonic repertoire is hugely important for world class players. Every night they are in the pit to support the singers and the production. For example, Kay Stern played the most beautiful violin solo during Turandot and no one mentions this or focuses on this. Our players are there each night to serve the stage but I want to take care for them, to serve them, to put them in the spotlight for a chance to really be heard for the great players that they are.
Luisotti's sentiments are returned. Even discounting the fact that it's generally a good idea to speak well of the boss (and that great performances often come from relationships not always pleasant), there are many impressive comments by the musicians such as these:
"Maestro Luisotti makes each performance new and exciting. Our orchestra is playing with more passion and commitment to the music than ever." [Julie McKenzie, principal flute]
"The genuine passion that Maestro Luisotti brings to every piece he conducts truly inspires the orchestra to take chances and achieve some of the most heartfelt performances of my career." [Adam Luftman, principal trumpet]
Working together for six years now has made a big difference for Luisotti:
Conducting my own orchestra is very different than when I guest conduct with others. We have something like a marriage together. We have an unspoken communication and a deep complicity because we know each other so well. We enjoy our time together and celebrate the strengths and the challenges.
They understand my personality, that I have a big temperament, but also that I am honest and also sometimes funny. I understand them and we can create the music with a nod or a smile, and even without the talking, we are in communion together.
When I guest-conduct, it is not the same. We are just meeting each other for the first time sometimes. It is an exciting adventure — a [potential] love affair, but not a marriage. For me, it is a blessing to have my own great orchestra and also to be able to travel the world and lead orchestras like Berlin, Philadelphia, and Cleveland where I go to conduct this season.
Luisotti is also at his most honest and human when he talks about working with the orchestra during times of stress and grief:
A year ago, while he was conducting Aida and preparing for The Marriage of Figaro and Madame Butterfly, his mother had a stroke in Italy and died 10 days later. "I was screaming at the chorus at a rehearsal," Luisotti recalls, with regret: "I am human, not a machine ... but the performances went on and I did my best, even as I felt my soul being destroyed."
During the recent run of Turandot, tenor Salvatore Licitra, a good friend of Luisotti, died in a motorcycle accident. "I wanted to stop and take time off to deal with the shock," Luisotti says, "but there were performances to give. Singers, orchestra musicians, we all have to overcome problems and feelings, and serve the composer and the audience."