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One Orchestra, Two Maestros

By Geoffrey Norris
14 Sep 2011

Sir Colin Davis
photo by Stephanie Berger

There is no single method of achieving result with an orchestra, and though many maestros through the centuries have been remembered for their bravura, Sir Colin Davis may well be remembered for an equally captivating reserve.


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Davis will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in October, sharing the Orchestra’s visit with a conductor of a contrasting but complementary disposition, Gianandrea Noseda.

Davis talks quietly, almost whispering. In his time, he has also been voted Pipe-Smoker of the Year, and he is a devotee of knitting—facets that combine with his extraordinary, penetrating musicianship to make him one of the most distinctive and distinguished conductors on the podium today. But the relaxed pipe-and-slippers-in-front-of-the-fire image is a deceptive one. Until 2007 he was the LSO’s principal conductor, and he is now its president. As he told me a couple of years ago, “Usually you make someone president when you want to get rid of them, but it isn’t like that. I’m not being put out to pasture, either alone or with my favorite works.” Far from it. He has embarked on a series of Nielsen symphonies with the LSO for the first time, and, although he is now in his 80s and his schedule has had to be curtailed somewhat, he has continued to give some of the most enthralling concerts that London has ever enjoyed, most recently some remarkable Beethoven piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida. To New York he brings a composer with whom he has long been associated, Sibelius, performing the Second Symphony and, with Nikolaj Znaider, the Violin Concerto—music that always seems to inspire in Davis a special frisson of affinity, conjuring up the atmosphere, the subtle colors and the landscapes of Sibelius’s imagination. Equally compelling is his command of monumental scores such as Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, a work that will be joined in these programs by Noseda’s account of Britten’s War Requiem to dip into the wells of our consciousness about humankind’s anguished contemplation of discord and our aspiration to surmount it.

When you speak to Gianandrea Noseda, he exudes Italian vivacity, Russian introspection, and the pragmatism that he has honed during his time in the United Kingdom. It is a fascinating mix, and one that comes across potently in his performances. Noseda’s home—if an international conductor can ever be said to have a base at all—is in Italy, where he is music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, conducting operas and orchestral concerts. He also masterminds and vigorously participates in the Settimane Musicali in Stresa, the annual music festival set in the exquisite landscape surrounding Lake Maggiore. His Russian links stem from his work at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where in 1997 he became the first foreigner to hold the post of principal guest conductor, an involvement that has fuelled fine interpretations of the Russian orchestral and operatic repertoire, not least of which is Prokofiev’s War and Peace, with which Noseda made his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2002.

Ever since Noseda burst on to the British musical scene a decade ago as principal conductor of the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic, he has galvanized the country with innovatory ideas such as live performances of the complete Beethoven symphonies that were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and made available as free downloads on the Internet. It is calculated that well over one million web-users took advantage of the scheme. Noseda has championed his compatriots such as Respighi, Dallapiccola, and Casella; he has embraced Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and a whole spectrum of other composers with the same amalgam of enthusiasm, rigor and insight. He relinquishes his position at the helm of the BBC Philharmonic this year, yielding it to the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, but Noseda has become such an integral part of the fabric of British musical life, not only in Manchester but also with other orchestras including the LSO, that it is unthinkable that he will not remain a vital presence.

Noseda’s stance on the podium, as American audiences will know well from his past appearances with the New York Philharmonic or at the Met, and with other orchestras across the U.S., is athletic, at one moment reaching upward to the skies, at another bending low with a suppleness that would earn admiration in any gym.

Music, with its special need for collaboration within an orchestra, chorus, and soloists, is a perfect microcosm of wider humanitarian and peaceful ideals. As Sir Colin Davis has said, “The goal of making music is freedom to cooperate. It’s a sensitive, delicate business. It depends on mutual respect.”





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