By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly knows that Milan's legendary La Scala opera house, where he takes over as principal conductor in January, is a political and cultural pressure cooker. So he's going to give the public what it wants: Italian opera.
That might seem like a no-brainer - Italian opera in Italy's most famous opera house. But outgoing music director Daniel Barenboim riled some of the famously opinionated La Scala audience by opening the 2012-2013 season - a joint 200th birthday year for Germany's Richard Wagner and Italy's Giuseppe Verdi - with Wagner's "Lohengrin".
Not only that, but the other half of La Scala's new artistic team, Alexander Pereira, has taken over as general manager on something of a probationary basis.
Milan's mayor wants to see how Pereira does in his first year after he caused a row by agreeing - if not actually signing contracts - to buy four productions from his former opera house in Salzburg before he had full authority to do so, a spokesman for La Scala said.
"I'm aware of all that," Chailly told Reuters, speaking of the politics of La Scala, in an interview after his recordings of the four Brahms symphonies with his Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig for Decca won the Gramophone magazine award for best recording of the year. He and the Gewandhaus tour the United States, starting in Leipzig's sister city Houston, next month.
But Chailly, 61, and a native of Milan, has what he thinks may be the magic formula to appease the angry gods of La Scala.
Yes, he will do modern opera, including one of the imports from Salzburg, Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag's "Fin de partie" that is based on Samuel Beckett's play "Endgame".
Nor does he quibble with Barenboim having programmed Wagner, whom he diplomatically described "as a very welcome composer".
"But apart from that, what I think is important is more and more to focus on the Italian operas," Chailly, a bearded, craggy-faced man, said in his hotel room in central London, still basking in the glow of having won the prestigious Gramophone award, which inevitably boosts sales.
"What made La Scala famous through the centuries? Italian opera, the way you hear Italian opera performed in that theater...There is something there you can only hear that way - it's unique," he said.
Chailly could, and does, say the same about the Gewandhaus, which traces its roots back to 1479 and where he took over as chief conductor for the 2005-06 season.
"It's an orchestra you can recognize with your eyes closed after only a few bars" of music, he said of the Gewandhaus, which he puts in a league with its nearby compere orchestra the Staatskapelle Dresden, as having a "Saxon" German sound.
By that he means they have "a dark string sound...also in the woodwinds and the brass, they all have this tendency to the darker sound, compared to the European standard".
Perfect for Brahms? The Gramophone thought so, touting Chailly's Brahms as an exemplar of "classical music's way of reinventing itself and staying relevant to every generation".
But if the Gramophone thought the approach was fresh, it came, in Chailly's view, in part from the Gewandhaus's tradition of playing Bach, on a weekly basis.
"They are very cultivated musicians because every week they play Bach and there is no modern large orchestra in the world which plays Bach every week," he said, referring to the orchestra's "second job" playing at Leipzig's St. Thomas Church.
Chailly's own passion for music, demonstrated to audiences throughout the world for more than four decades, he attributes in part to his father Luciano, a composer and arts administrator, who when Chailly was 10 dumped him in the upper-row seats for a concert in Rome by the RAI orchestra.
Neither Chailly nor his father knew that one of the pieces on the program would be Mahler's First Symphony, the "Titan", but it left a lasting impression.
"I didn't know what kind of music it was and only after I discovered it was the Mahler First Symphony," he said. "How can you know, at the age of 9 or 10, but that was an opening to a new universe which was for me something I would never forget."
And what is Chailly's next recording project? "We are thinking of a complete set of the Rachmaninoff symphonies, also with the Gewandhaus, so a major drive into the late romantic repertoire, very close to the sound culture of the Gewandhaus."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)