Gianandrea Noseda is the Principal Guest Conductor of London Symphony Orchestra. Having had maestro Valery Gergiev as his mentor, Gianandrea Noseda worked as a guest conductor at Mariinsky theatre for 10 years since 1997. Noseda is a proficient Russian speaker and knows Russian history, art and literature very well, but his main interest is, of course, music. In the last two seasons he appeared with LSO with Symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich, for which he provides a powerful, thoughtful and original interpretation inspired by years of research into the works of Soviet composer. On 28 March 2019 Noseda will lead the LSO in Russian Roots programme, including Seong-Jin Cho playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano concerto, Balakirev’s «Islamey» and Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Yulia Savikovskaya met the conductor at the Barbican Hall after one of his rehearsals to talk about his career and exploration of Dmitry Shostakovich.

Gianandrea Noseda (credit: Igor Emmerich)

What does it mean to you to be a musician?

To be a musician gives me the possibility to be in contact with big geniuses of music. I personally touch gold every single day when I open the score of any great composer including the modern ones. It is also translated in the way I work with the orchestra as I try to get to the core of the music, understand the composer’s message. It makes you feel very humble because this music is much bigger than you. It also is reflected in the way how I see the world around us. I don’t feel like I have all the truth in my pocket. I feel I always have to look for truth. That’s why I am usually very open – I respect and I value all the different points of view because I want to learn, to talk, discuss and come to a decision together. This inner flexibility changes my relationship with the world.

How did you develop this sensibility and knowledge of the music in your student years? I know that you have studied in Italy – so was there a special approach to musical education there?

The main lesson I learned when I was a student in Sienna, studying with Valery Gergiev when he came to visit our Academy was to pay attention to the details and understand how even minor details change the perception of the musical phrase. Although not always serious in private lifes, in music we, musicians, take things seriously, we want to know and to study.

Both for Italians and for Russians it is important to be connected with our musical tradition as well as literature and poetry. In Italy there are such giants as Dante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Manzoni – there are so many. One could draw parallels with Russia – Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy in the 19thcentury, Bulgakov, Akhmatova in the 20thcentury, then also all the composers – Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Scriabin – what a heritage. This knowledge established the foundation, makes you understand your roots, allows you to flourish and to blossom. It is like a tree – if you are connected to the earth, you can shoot into the sky standing on the shoulders of giants.

Could you speak about your lessons with Valery Gergiev?

He taught us in Accademia Chigiana in summer 1993. He taught me the sensitivity to the sound. I remember he said that I had very eloquent and rhythmic hands. He said that I should concentrate on imagining the sound, understand what kind of sound you want, what kind of colour, what kind of articulation, which is the most important note in the first fifty bars of this piece and who is playing it. He always pushed students to the limit for us to understand these things. For example, you do Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and it is already difficult, but then you work on Shostakovich’s symphonies, and it becomes even more challenging to understand: what is the most important note in this section? what is the most important phrase? what is the key moment that enlightens the fragment? Gergiev pushed me to look for answers to these questions.

And what is your usual learning and preparation for conducting a piece?

At first, I look at the score. I think it is our Bible, our sacred text. The question you ask yourself why he or she composed this note, and why this note follows the previous one – why, why, why? You have to imagine the answers, and you never know if your answers are right. After that you start to build up the process of learning and building a piece architecturally. It makes you understand why the. composer created the score, where he or she found the inspiration for it. You start to research the context – what he or she was doing, what other pieces were composed at that time, what other relationships were developed. If you go to the city where the composer lived, you visit their homes – in Vienna I’ve already visited 4 or 5 houses where Beethoven was living. Some of them are now restaurants or B&Bs. No one even remembers where Beethoven lived, but I did my research and I know these places. It is to imagine what he was thinking when he was composing that quartet or piano sonata. It might sound stupid, but it gives you the impression of the place he was living in, and inspires your own ideas, your answers – you never know if they are correct, but these visits add elements, add some information. And after that you go back to the score, you go to a live concert where this piece is played to see if you can get something new from a colleague or an orchestra, and all that goes into my mind.

Are there composers that are more difficult to decode than others?

Yes, the further you on history, the more mysterious it gets. If I take Palestrina or Orlande de Lassus, or Luca Marenzio, for instance – there will be plenty of unknown things about them. But even if we don’t have a lot of records, we don’t have many elements, we still might have three or four important details, for example, of Palestrina travelling to Rome, or Gesualdo killing his wife because she was unfaithful. We can bring them together and add to the wider knowledge of the country’s history.

Which modern composers have you worked with, and what is your style of working with living composers when they are present and could be consulted?

I would have liked to talk to Beethoven or Stravinsky, but they are not here. Although I still can find someone who met Stravinsky and Prokofiev and talk to them, or students of those people. Of course, with Verdi and Wagner we already don’t have this connection. With living composers it is fantastic – for instance, I can talk to James McMillan when I work with him, and I can ask him about some notes, what was the intended phrasing, what was thr idea of the sound, and so on. I had many collaborations with modern composers – Italians, Russians, and others. I like to expose myself to new music because it gives me a very fresh perspective. It also helps me when I go back to work on something I know very well. It pushes me to go there with the same freshness and not with the feeling ‘I know it’. Every single time is a new chapter.

Can I ask you about your experience as a guest conductor at Mariinsky?

Working with Mariinsky was incredible. It was my creative kitchen where I was very productive. I spent three months in a year in Saint Petersburg for 10 years and constantly learned without any weekends. I did all the Italian operas and several Russians ones – «Boris Godunov», «Dame de Pique», «Eugene Onegin». I then did «Prince Igor» at the Metropolitan Opera, but I took Russian singers from Mariinsky for that performance, so it was the same atmosphere as in Saint Petersburg.

The season of 2017/2018 with London Symphony Orchestra was marked with your work on Shostakovich and now you continue to explore him with this orchestra. Can you describe your interest in this composer and speak about your preparation of his works with LSO.

It is interesting that Shostakovich, along with Verdi and Beethoven, was the composer who could change the society he was living in. Other composers were fantastic, but they could not do it. Verdi was born in Italy in 1813, and he died in 1901 in a completely different Italy, and he actually contributed to the change of the country. It was the same for Beethoven – Napoleon, the Vienna Congress, the Restoration – through his art he changed the state of contemporary world. And it is true for Shostakovich – I think without him glasnost’ and perestroika would have happened in a different way. Shostakovich suffered during Stalin’s era – he was marked as a modernist composer, he was trying to comply to the rules of the Soviet state to survive during Stalin’s era and after his death you would think he could live as he wanted. But in fact, it was also a difficult time for him, and he was already old – and he was looking back at the society he lived in before and compared it to the society he was living in then. His music is about the relationship between the artist and the society, the rules of the society, big philosophical questions – why death, why life, why one has to compose music, what is it to be an artist in his time. And little by little he changed the society – from the dictatorship to a new era. Whatever you do to change the status quo is good for the future. Things developed – probably not the way he wanted, but he contributed to the change. Even nowadays we are going through a difficult time as a society, and it might be compared (figuratively) to the time between 1936 to 1953 (Stalin’s death) that Shostakovich lived in. That time imposed the same kind of questions we ask today – where do I go? Where I should go? I don’t know, but I try here and there. I try to be the Russian composer who celebrates great victories, but I also try to develop there revolutionary ideas of freedom and self-expression.

But why Shostakovich specifically? Why not Prokofiev, for instance?

I would do Prokofiev, too. But Shostakovich, after Beethoven and Mahler, is the biggest symphonist. Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies, Mahler – 9 symphonies, Shostakovich – 15. It is a massive output. If you want to trace what he wanted to say, you need to start from when he was young to his late symphonies and explore his huge world encompassing 20thcentury which was very dramatic and had two World Wars and several dictatorships.

How do you reach the level of performance you usually achieve? I remember hearing you in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, and the whole audience was stricken by the dynamics and tension you created. How do you technically achieve this with LSO, how do you work with them?

You need a great orchestra – LSO is a stupendous orchestra. You need an ability of orchestral musicians to reach the extremes – to go from nothing to the loudest sound, from the most aggressive to the most tender, from the sweetest and to the most bitter, to explore all the possibilities. You become an artist who has the whole range of colours on the palette, each with its own nuances and who can experiment with their combinations.

Shostakovich pushes my imagination to the limit. The Eighth is written like no other, it is not in the sonata form, it is more like a suite with seven moments. It is not perfect in terms of structure, but in terms of imagination it is one of the most innovative and advanced works of Shostakovich. Architecturally some other symphonies are more secure, but sometimes in things that are not perfect there is more power. This symphony goes from the massive sound to nothing, from the most extreme phrase and articulations to some visionary elements and to complete dissolution.

How do you collaborate with your soloists? Like Nicola Benedetti or Nikolai Lugansky and others? Do you have to transfer your vision to them, or do you trust them?

My rule is to try to catch the idea of the soloist, not to impose mine. Soloists usually have very strong visions of what they are playing. I try to understand their views, trust them and fall in love with them. Unless of course the soloist doesn’t have a lot of ideas – in that case I suggest a few things, but that was not the case with Nikolai and Nicola.

In your opinion, in conducting what comes with the age and experience, and what can be there inherently? Can one be a conducting superstar at the age of 18, or is it the profession that needs twenty years of development?

I think for the conductor three things are important: instinct, knowledge and experience. Instinct – you can have when you are 20. Knowledge can be increased through studying. Experience could only be acquired through the real activity of conducting. One can be conducting at 25 because their instinct is fantastic. After that you have to put some effort in. Sometimes there are conductors with great knowledge and experience, but they lack instinct – that element of surprise, of flamboyance. It cannot be acquired. Knowledge depends on you, experience is your work and can be acquired, but instinct – no.

So in a way for us to hear you conducting is also to understand your personality, is that correct? Your instinct, your temperament through the orchestra, is that right?

Yes, but instinct and experience only do not make a conductor. You need a combination of three, and the connecting point is knowledge which is acquired through hard work. As I said in the beginning of our talk, we touch gold. If we touch gold, we should do it with very clean hands. So our first step is to wash hands, that is to clear our soul to be able to see the richness of the score we are reading.