Riccardo Chailly: ‘I want to do things differently, to put life on hold’

Conductor Riccardo Chailly is at the height of his powers, so why is he determined to slow down? He tells Fiona Maddocks about leaving Leipzig’s Gewandhaus and his return to La Scala, Milan

“The sound knocked me back like a great crashing wave. It was a shock, a terrible blow to my body, to my head, to my soul. But in a nice way.” Riccardo Chailly, 62, has never forgotten his first rehearsal with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra nearly 30 years ago, at the Salzburg festival. The work was Richard Strauss’s early tone poem Don Juan, which bursts forth with strings soaring up like a fleet of rockets, brass detonating in mad retort. Those opening bars intoxicate and overwhelm, even from a safe seat in the audience. How much more electrifying to be on the podium, knowing a single flick of your baton has created this bolt of energy.

Back then, Chailly was a fervent, 33‑year-old Italian with reddish-chestnut flowing hair, a slightly unruly beard and a glittering career ahead of him. He was already music director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, an ideal training ground for a fast-rising young conductor. His unlikely rival in the same, western half of a still-divided city was Herbert von Karajan, nearly 80, silver-haired and impeccably tailored, with most of his achievements as music director of the illustrious Berlin Philharmonic already in the past. Karajan remained, nevertheless, the most powerful figure in classical music and an unexpectedly generous mentor.

“It was Karajan’s idea to put us together,” Chailly chuckles. “This young Italian and this oldest of European orchestras with a glorious tradition dating back to the 18th century.” Its past music directors include Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch and Wilhelm Furtwängler. “And you know Richard Strauss conducted the Gewandhaus, too. People ask how you can have a heritage of sound. But players might be in the orchestra 40 years. They talk, rehearse, travel together. Living traditions are passed on and grow.” It was the start of a long relationship that led to Chailly’s appointment, in 2005, as music director of the Gewandhaus (the name means “textile hall”).

Next week Chailly returns to the Barbican with the orchestra for their third residency (with one concert in Birmingham). This is his last such collaboration. In June 2016, after 11 years, 220 concerts and 40 tours, he will leave Leipzig to concentrate on his new jobs at the helm of both La Scala, Milan and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. His Leipzig successor, from 2017, will be Andris Nelsons.

As Chailly dislikes guest conducting, he will be a less regular presence in the UK – hurry while stocks last. The London and Birmingham concerts will combine Strauss’s epic tone poems with concertos by Mozart (with Maria João Pires and Radu Lupu, piano, Christian Tetzlaff, violin and Martin Fröst, clarinet as soloists). Following a family concert, the full orchestra’s series opens, fittingly, with Don Juan.

“This Strauss/Mozart project is close to my heart. Strauss admired Mozart deeply, it makes sense to bring their works together. I’ve never done these six tone poems as a complete series.” Chailly is an enthusiast for complete cycles, of Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner. His recent Brahms Symphonies, reissued this month as part of a seven-CD set, won almost every recording prize available. “These Strauss works span 12 years of his life, and are unimaginably hard. We have to study from scratch, to rehearse anew each time. They are so difficult.”

This is hard to grasp. With the exception of the early Macbeth, this is all mainstream repertoire. A gauge of popularity is the BBC Proms: Till Eulenspiegel has been played 102 times, Don Juan 89 (compared to 119 for Beethoven’s Ninth).Chailly is one of the tiny cluster of unrivalled maestri in the world, now at his peak. Before Leipzig he was chief conductor of the illustrious Amsterdam Concertgebouw (1988-2004). Can Strauss really be such a challenge?

“You have a huge orchestra, but it must sound transparent, controlled, almost neoclassical. And then your ideas about it change. I’ve been studying Ein Heldenleben again. It always used to take me 41 to 42 minutes. Last night we played it and it took 46 minutes!”

How so? “The consequence of new interpretative ideas. Some of the writing embraces violent extremes and is virtuosic; the conductor has to have a terrific technique!”

Fortunately he has. Born into a musical family in Milan in 1953, Chailly was able to witness great conductors at close quarters. His father, Luciano, was a composer and administrator, first in charge of music programmes for RAI television, then artistic director of La Scala, Milan. Aged 10, Riccardo heard Zubin Mehta rehearse Mahler and knew that he, too, was destined to become a conductor. By 19 he was assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala, learning so much of his right-hand technique from the maestro that he worried he was merely imitating him. Typically, Chailly went back to basics and reconstructed his technique to suit his own style.

“In the right hand – for most people – you hold the baton. That hand keeps complete control of rhythm and tempo. The left hand is for colour, flexibility, expression.” He makes it sound quite straightforward. Then he shifts gear. “But conducting is, above all, a gift of nature, your body’s constitution, how you feel the movement of the music. That’s what counts. It’s almost mystical, alchemical, what happens between you and your players and the music. You can’t talk in a concert, after all, except with gesture.”

Chailly studied composition and piano but never had any doubt about his chosen path, taking conducting courses in Milan and Siena. His father, knowing the formidable gifts needed, was not at first encouraging, once telling an interviewer that his son’s piano playing “was not particularly sensational”, but that he wasn’t bad at the drums (he played in a free-jazz group called the Nameless). Despite these supposed shortcomings, Chailly gave his first public concert in Padua, when 14, and by 25 he had become the youngest person to conduct at La Scala. “In a way my father was protecting me. He hated the idea of any kind of nepotism. He wanted me to engage with other studies, and also learn languages.” He is fluent in four, including Dutch. “We never fell out, just battled a bit. But he was proud when he saw that I was succeeding.”

Riccardo Chailly conducts Maria João Pires

Mild-mannered and soberly dressed, Chailly is self-possessed, not liable to be cajoled into gossip. He is too sage, and one suspects too generous, to resort to any bad-mouthing of colleagues. Despite his chosen career, and his affability, he has an air of introversion. He won unexpected fame on social media for footage of a public rehearsal in which Pires arrived expecting to play one Mozart concerto, only realising once she heard the orchestral introduction that it was in fact a different one being performed. Chailly coaxed her into a perfect performance with his reassuring comments, trusting her fine musicianship.

His “good guy” reputation might be tested to its limits at La Scala, where politics, strikes and out-of-date working practices are rife. As principal conductor, he will open the season with Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, starring Anna Netrebko, in December. Under his predecessor Daniel Barenboim the repertoire has been heavily Germanic; Chailly aims to restore Italian opera to the forefront. Ever committed to new music, he also plans at least one contemporary opera each year, and he wants to develop the scope of the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra, with concerts and touring. The completist in him will be satisfied with a projected series of all 12 Puccini operas, to be relayed by RAI and issued on DVD by Decca.

In an almost literal passing of batons, Chailly will also succeed Abbado, who died in 2014, as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, opening next summer’s festival with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, “the only one Claudio, a wonderful Mahlerian, didn’t do. We will dedicate the concert to his memory.” Many assume Lucerne was the reason he decided to leave Leipzig before the end of his contract in 2020. There was also a cancelled Rachmaninov recording series with the Gewandhaus that may have caused tension.

Chailly denies all this.

“No, not at all. I am pleased to be succeeding Claudio but this will only take up a few weeks a year. I wanted to leave [the Gewandhaus] because of my age and because I have had so many, many high points in my years here. But I have also had to sacrifice so much of my private life.” He has been married to Gabriela Terragni since 1982. She has a son, and he a daughter, from previous marriages. There are two young grandchildren. “I want to do things differently. It means a lot to be working in my home country. I am an uncharacteristic Italian, an awkward Milanese.”

Chailly certainly shows no signs of Italianate fire – except on the podium, where he is exhilaratingly explosive. “I have lived in Berlin eight years, Amsterdam 16, Leipzig 11. This way of life is fascinating, but intense and demanding. Now I must find the energy to say ‘no’, to stay healthy, have time to think and study, live at home with my wife.”

He used to be addicted to extreme sports: motorbikes, speedboats, parakiting. No longer, he says. If you ask him about speed he prefers to talk about metronome markings. He has a new and more elusive plan. “I want to stop the engine. To sit still and be silent.” A noble ambition, but scarcely a speck on the horizon right now.

Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra are at the Barbican, London, 17-23 October and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19 October


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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