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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Sir Antonio Pappano: A sorcerer of the symphony at work 

The conducter tells The National about the magic of conducting and his orchestra’s pieces for the Abu Dhabi Festival

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist violinist Nikolaj Znaider at Barbican Centre Amy T Zielinski / Redferns
Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist violinist Nikolaj Znaider at Barbican Centre Amy T Zielinski / Redferns

Sir Antonio Pappano is trying to explain the strange magic of conducting. The charismatic director of the Royal Opera House in London and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - the latter playing in Abu Dhabi on Sunday and Monday - maintains that it’s a combination of performance, theatrics and even mind reading.

“Conducting is an amazing meeting of intellect, the heart and spontaneity,” he says. “But then, it’s incredible that a person up there can wave his arms around and all of a sudden the orchestra becomes a unit. Sometimes, though, you don’t have to wave your arms like a maniac at all - sometimes, the music can be affected just by the way you look at an orchestra. It’s a wonderful - and risky - business.”

Pappano, who was born in England to Italian immigrants and moved to the United States as a teenager, has been wowing audiences and taking risks ever since the early 1990s when he was made principal conductor at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo.

Now 58, the mental and physical demands of his consistently great opera work in London mean that he’s likely to concentrate on symphonic music when his contract at the Royal Opera House expires in 2020.

“I’ll still be looking for variety, but I want to make music without having to consider all the visual and theatrical elements that go with opera,” he says. “There’s a greater intimacy when you’re just working with a symphony orchestra - it’s you, the musicians, the music and the audience. And that experience is somehow deeper. I’m not saying it’s a competition between symphony and opera - I love opera. But they’re different disciplines, and as you get older things take on more meaning and profundity - and I’m finding that in the symphonic repertoire. Or, at least, I’m looking for it there.”

Which is why his work with Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia takes on such significance. The Orchestra was the first ensemble in Italy to dedicate itself to the symphonic repertoire instead of opera, and Pappano, who took on the directorship in 2005, says that the fact it’s survived at all in “the land of opera” is a big deal.

“It’s like a perfect fit for me given my family is Italian and I was born in London,” he says. “So now I have this big job in London and I work with an Italian orchestra, so it all seems to fit!

“Seriously, the Orchestra dell’Accademia means a lot to me now. After 13 years together we’re achieving some very good results. There’s been a growth and development of the orchestra alongside my own personal growth - it’s created an amazing second life for me alongside the opera. We’ve travelled a lot, we’ve done a lot of recordings and we’re going to continue to do so. So there’s a wonderful understanding between us from a human and musical point of view, which is very rewarding.”

The two performances in Abu Dhabi are the perfect introduction, too, given that on the opening night they will feature Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome – both pieces written especially for the orchestra in the early 20th century.

“They are our signature pieces,” agrees Pappano, “but then I’m also very happy to be doing Verdi’s Sinfonia to Aida. It’s a version that’s been discarded - you hear what we’re used to at the very beginning and then there’s a pot pourri of all the themes from the opera. It’s quite a dramatic piece, a lot of fun.”

Of course, the Aida opera is set in Egypt and premiered in Cairo in 1871, which will lend a certain geographical relevance to a performance in Abu Dhabi. Pappano admits that the piece was chosen with this in mind - and that there’s always a frisson of excitement when he plays music in its original setting.

“We were just on tour in Germany and we played Beethoven and Strauss - and it does make a difference. It’s a challenge for us because we’re playing music that is so familiar for the audience, but it also means people get to hear a new approach. There’s a cultural exchange for everybody.

“So in Abu Dhabi if we can bring high quality music, the experience for the audiences will be positive because the music is undeniably strong, emotional - and human.”

Which certainly should be the case at the Orchestra’s second night in Abu Dhabi, when Pappano will conduct Kyung Wha Chung in a performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Long regarded as one of the world’s greatest violinists, Pappano can’t wait to work with Chung for the first time. How will that relationship play out at the Emirates Palace Auditorium? Pappano takes us back to the whole notion of what it is to conduct.

“With someone like Kyung, you don’t sit down beforehand and decide how you’re going to approach a piece,” he reveals. “She plays a little bit in rehearsal, I try to understand where she’s coming from and then when you’re in front of an orchestra you try to mould something that makes sense.

“And when you’re on the same wavelength… well, there’s a wonderful immediacy of communication and understanding. I’m incredibly excited to experience that, and I hope audiences will be too.”

The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with Sir Antonio Pappano will be perform at Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi, on Sunday and Monday. http://www.abudhabifestival.ae

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