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Modern Maestro

By DOM GALEON

Portrait by NOEL PABALATE

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Decades after it was last presented on a Philippine stage (at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, in fact, in 1977), the classic opera Lucia di Lammermoor is making a comeback. With an international cast made up of singers from almost every part of the world, including four Filipinos, with an equally talented set of directors, Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 opera will once again enchant Filipino audiences.

Anyone who has ever seen an opera would know that, apart from the singers on stage, a more crucial element of the show is the orchestra. At the helm of every orchestra is, of course, a conductor. A magician of sorts, conductors make music come alive with every swish of their batons. For this particular show, this honor was given to 36-year-old, Berlin-based Italian musician and conductor Alessandro Palumbo.

Maestro Alessandro started as a répétiteur, a pianist for opera, before becoming a conductor. He studied music, specializing in piano and composition, at the Conservatorio di Milano in his hometown in Italy. He then studied in Valencia, Spain, after having received a scholarship there, which came with the unique opportunity and privilege being under the wing of the great musicologist and conductor Alberto Zedda. His education in music, however, truly started when he was younger, listening to songs by his favorite band Queen, particularly “Love of My Life” and “Somebody to Love.”

To better understand just how important a conductor’s role is, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle had a chat with Maestro Alessandro outside the Little Theater of the CCP on the first day of rehearsals for Lucia.

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What did you feel when you first conducted an opera?

Panic. (laughs) Because I had the great chance to conduct Don Quicchotte by Jules Massenet—that was my first opera. It’s the last opera of Massenet, very complicated. Of course it was shocking because I had 100 musicians in front of me and I had to gain their respect, be in control of everything. It was shocking but it was such a pleasure.

When you start to move your hands and the music comes out, it’s such a joy and a pleasure. There is no school in conducting. You learn that one, two, three, four—that’s the basic. But then how you go from one to two and from three and to four, it depends on your physicality, how you are made, and your sensibility also, no? It’s amazing to hear how an orchestra’s sound changes depending on who is conducting.

 

How would you describe yourself as a conductor?

I describe myself as passionate—maybe because I’m Italian. (laughs)

I don’t know if there is an expression in English but I like to conduct with my body. I don’t get lost in the air. I really like the physicality of conducting, the movement, the ‘power’ of the body. I transmit this power to the orchestra and to the music that they produce.

 

From being a pianist to being a conductor, what’s the difference?

It’s less scary because you don’t see the audience, no? (laughs)

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Don’t you miss being a performer?

But I am a performer. It’s just different. As a pianist, you are alone on the stage. As a conductor, I still perform and I like the joy of sharing music with other people. It’s for me conducting and making music with orchestra is no different from chamber music. It’s totally chamber music because you have to communicate with them and make music with them. It’s not just me. I move and I give commands, of course. As a performer, I like to see how an orchestra responds to my gesture.

 

Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to conducting an orchestra?

Yes. It happens rarely but when I see that an orchestra or singers make music as routine, that’s something that I don’t like—without passion. I need to see that everyone is involved in making music. Otherwise…(he gestures with his hands) As a musician—and I’ve been always like this—I don’t care about the level of an orchestra or singer or musician. I don’t care if their skills are not 100 percent good. But if they like what they do, they enjoy, and they want to grow, that is perfect.

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What is more important for you: skill or talent? 

Passion. Passion with what they do. Talent, of course, is needed. But the important thing is to want something and to put an effort: to be passionate.

 

This is your first time to conduct Lucia, right? How are you approaching the piece? 

First thing I did was read the score by Donizetti. A score is not very different from a book, just notes instead of words, and I have to go through all the notes for every instrument and try to understand exactly what Donizetti wanted, how it was supposed to sound.

 

How long does it take you to study a piece? 

It depends on the piece. Lucia is very difficult, and it is 500 pages long. Even if we made some cuts here and there, it’s pretty long. So I would say not less than four or five months. Because it takes time to read the text, read information about the opera, historical background, read the Walter Scott novel, for example.

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Did you listen to other versions of Lucia

When I was répétiteur in Valencia, this was the first opera I did. I really love Lucia. I’ve heard it many times. But when I study a score, I don’t listen to any recording because I don’t want to get influenced by other performers. I really want to have my own idea, my own take—even if it’s wrong, I don’t care. (laughs) I’m still young, I can commit mistakes—and, of course, I will probably commit some style mistakes. Maybe. I don’t know. Who can say? Maybe Donizetti will tell me one day, I don’t know. (laughs)

 

What is your most favorite moment in this piece?

There are several because this piece is so passionate. Maybe the strongest part is the finale secondo, the end of the second act—or the end of the first act of the second part, which is right in the middle of the opera, when Lucia is obliged to sign the wedding contract with Arturo. But she doesn’t want to marry Arturo. She’s in love with Edgardo.

I think this is the most powerful moment, where the romanticism comes out. Lucia is very interesting because it’s right in the middle of classicism and romanticism. You can still hear some closed forms, some arias—aria recitativo, aria e cabaletta, like in the bel canto style. Then you hear this finale secondo where everything is like in the romantic style, like in Puccini where there are no closed forms. It’s like Mozart, for example, just flowing continuously.

This is very difficult to conduct because the music changes a lot, from piano or soft to forte or stronger or harder and faster—and the last part is very fast, with the chorus and everything.

 

The cast of this particular production is international. It’s a mix. Does that affect how you deal with them?

In the opera world, even when the nationalities are different, we speak the same language: music

 

Lucia di Lammermoor will be at the Tanghalang Guillermo Tolentino of the CCP on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2. Tickets are priced at: P5,000 (Gala)/P2,500 (Matinee) for Orchestra Center; P3,000/P1,500 for Orchestra Sides, P1,500/P800 for Balcony I Center; and P1,000/P500 for Balcony I Sides. | CCP Box Office: (028) 832 3704 | TicketWorld: (028) 891 9999 | www.culturalcenter.gov.ph



Source: Manila Bulletin

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