Una piacevole conversazione sulla Direzione d'Orchestra,
la Musica e l'attuale mondo musicale.
A cura di Gian Francesco Amoroso.
Registrata a Milano, Giovedì 14 marzo 2019
ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Interview with Maestro Gilberto Serembe
Founder and Teacher of the Italian Conducting Academy
A pleasant conversation on Conducting, Music and the current music world.
By Gian Francesco Amoroso.
Recorded in Milan, Thursday, March 14, 2019
A pleasant conversation on Conducting, Music and the current music world.
By Gian Francesco Amoroso.
Recorded in Milan, Thursday, March 14, 2019
GFA: Hello. Today I have the great pleasure to talk to Maestro Gilberto Serembe, conductor, teacher and creator of an important Italian Music Academy. Maestro, you had the huge honour to study with great musicians such as Franco Ferrara and Mario Gusella. What inheritance did they leave you, both spiritually and artistically?
GS: They were totally different. Gusella was a proper Teacher. I had been studying with him at the conservatory since I was 19 years old until I was 22. He was one of Hermann Scherchen students and he trained us in a very strict and effective way for our early musical education. He was very methodical, like Scherchen had been. This was very important for young pupils studying Music and Conducting in that period since both approach and teaching were completely different 40 years ago. Ferrara was the personification of Music, as is well known. He was not a teacher like Gusella, but he was Music personified. Studying with him was crucial in order to decide to go ahead or give up musical training. His personality was totalising, as well as his way of music making. One cannot say that he was a proper teacher in the common sense. One had to go to him because he truly emanated grandiosity, and only a few people could catch his message or else very often they would abandon music. However, they were two great figures, very different, both had great humanity.
GFA: You had the fortune to meet Carlo Maria Giulini.
GS: Yes, I was in touch with him for a few years. I met him by chance. In 1974 he came to Italy after a long period of absence from conducting. He came to La Scala and he conducted a magnificent concert with the Wiener Symphoniker in an extraordinary Mahler's 1st Symphony, but the Milanese music critics tore him to pieces. With my 19-year-old fervor I wrote a fiery letter to the press which I also sent to him for his information. From that moment a relationship established between us. I followed him rehearsing and went to visit him at his house in via Ciovasso here in Milan. We had long and enlightening conversations. I usually attended his rehearsals at La Scala and I learnt a great deal. Knowing him after meeting many other conductors was a kind of revelation for me because he was one of the first to talk about Music not only from a technical point of view.
GFA: It is the partly the way you try to transfer his thoughts when you teach. You are both a conductor and teacher.
GS: It all happened by chance. When Mario Gusella died (he taught at the Accademia Musicale Pescarese) I was called to replace him as a teacher with my former school friend Donato Renzetti. So that is when I started my teaching activity.
GFA: And then you decided to establish an academy at that’s time, something new in the music teaching world of the conservatories of that period.
GS: Well, more than an academy, it was more about conveying my musical point of view. I would not like to seem too grand but I thought of founding a place for the sharing of musical ideas and ideals and where students could experience great things from the very beginning. I wanted to leave something about myself. I am talking about the legacy I inherited, my ideas and my experience both as a man and as a musician. The Academy is supposed to be a place where both novice students and well-trained ones can experience the great repertoire. Some people ask me why young students with no experience are given the opportunity to conduct a Brahms or Beethoven Symphony. In my opinion, it’s like being in the middle of a sea storm and being able to stay afloat. If you succeed, and you learn to swim, you are able to survive.
GFA: This is beautiful philosophy.
GS: My teaching method is not a traditional one but I use an inductive method. I induce musicians to be themselves without falling into technical and interpretative clichés. Everyone is different so one can’t apply the same method for all. There’s a bit of mystification regarding technique. Most people are convinced that the conductor only makes gestures, 1, 2, 3, 4, but that would be merely Solfège. The technique of a conductor is a combination of things; it is aural capacity, memory capacity, intuition, combined with a good general culture which naturally also helps in the projection of one’s musical thought. Gestural capacities, but gesture is always the projection of musical thought and it’s the final phase of the path of transformation. Many people don’t understand that the technique of a conductor, being the final result of a process, is that which allows conveying a musical thought which, for example, is not possible with instruments because if one isn’t able to perform a C Major scale, with the thumb pass on the keyboard, one will not even arrive at minimum of music making. In the completely different case of Conducting one has to start from a musical idea, which is also the conception of the orchestral sound and getting to have a particular gesture and technique, which is the way to communicate with the orchestra. There are conductors who have minimal, wide or even irrational gestures and yet they are efficacious on the orchestra.
GFA: Certainly. Looking at the Academy's programs, you annually propose a wide selection of repertoire to your students. There are also lesser known composers alongside more famous ones, despite the fact that theatres prefer proposing the usual programs with Mahler and Beethoven, which of course are absolute masterpieces, but you expand the repertoire very much. According to you which are the fundamental authors for developing the musical thought of a student and which others can be useful to enrich?
GS: Undoubtedly, the classics represent the starting point. Knowing the styles of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and then the Romantics (such as Mendelssohn) is fundamental because they are at the base of the creation and the thought of musical taste. Nevertheless, not every conductor finds it possible to be able to deal with any kind of repertoire. Some conductors choose to do it, but everyone has his own spiritual world and skills. There are great conductors who have never faced virtuoso repertoire such as the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. So, it's better to choose your own musical world right from the beginning. What I find very strange is that when I meet future students (they come to me before enrolling at the Academy to meet me, to talk) and I ask them ‘what do you like, what is the thing you are most passionate about?’, in general I find that they always hesitate to give an answer. It seems that they choose a course of orchestral conducting to learn a bit of everything and be ready to face up to a bit of everything in the future. Of course, as regards future work, this can guarantee many opportunities, but I don’t think so, as regards one’s future life. At this point, one should talk about a much greater subject regarding the will of ‘seeing oneself’ rather than ‘obtaining’ things in the course of one’s life. Nowadays, for young people the main problem is to have a vision of themselves in the future 5 to 10 years, to understand what to do with one’s life, rather than often trying to ‘obtain’ things… but things can be obtained easily enough… and one knows how to…
GFA: What do you expect from your students at the end of their course of studies, after this evolutionary process?
GS: Well, the funny thing is that I have young students who are already mature. Maybe their musical background is not yet complete, but they are very mature persons. I have had students with three diplomas who were not absolutely ready for this path. It's different from one to another. What do I expect? First of all, I expect great respect from them for Music and respect towards themselves, and as I said before, how one wants to see oneself…if they want to appear or if they want to be. It’s the usual story. Undoubtedly, the conductor is extremely visible compared to other musicians. Stravinsky said that music must be seen too. Perhaps we are more used to watching than to listening nowadays. Opera lovers go to La Scala to watch opera, not to listen to it.
GFA: There are also some people who go to La Scala just to say they have been there.
GS: YES, of course, that is another social aspect...
GFA: Times have changed and we live in the age of digital technology and social media. There is a great attention to visibility and one can say with new terms that the musical 'product' is somewhat subordinate to this new way of conceiving the musician. How can a student relate to the past?
GS: We know only too well that present times are the result of the past, (we can’t do without it) but obviously also of the future which brings the aspiration to do something new. However, for a musician knowing the past means knowing interpretation because the present interpretation is nothing but the sum of previous ones that modify and create something new, but obviously there is nothing 'ex novo'. It's the same for Figurative Art: it is the sum of different paths, techniques, of styles and so forth. Unfortunately, young people have everything already available today. They have a huge quantity of information available on the web. They can download music, scores, books, movies, videos for free. However, very few know where to look and what to look for. For example, I have hundreds of scores and a great many historical recordings in my library and I have a small heritage which is practically all available online too, but few people look for this heritage. I am convinced that for a young conductor listening to old recordings is the chance to understand the way of phrasing and the way of performing music. The tragedy now is that for thirty years or more, since the era of digital recording began, musicians have adapted to that kind of digital sound and it has greatly changed the taste for interpretation. There is a search for technical perfection at the expense of musical perfection which is obviously more elevated. Anyone who goes to a concert hall realizes that listening to music is not the same as listening to a CD at home which is all more defined and in which secondary parts are often heard in the foreground, something that not even a conductor listens to from his podium.
GFA: Of course, these are completely different parameters. Everything is so fast nowadays that the lack of rehearsals leads conductors to solve many problems in a short time.
GS: Nowadays, this is one of the most dramatic problems about musical performance. If orchestras have reached a good level then conductors do not need hours upon hours for rehearsing, but on the other hand this has led orchestras to rely on their technique and no longer on the furtherance of interpretation, so much so that orchestras all over the world have been laying back and playing the same way. In the past the sound of an orchestra was different from that of another. Today, the sound is becoming assimilated into an “international” one. Sometimes there are conductors who are able to get good results with little time and few rehearsals.
GFA: It's a matter of charisma, as we said before. Watching your videos and your lessons, you don't not give strict technical notions to deal with certain scores to your students and you leave them free to experiment and find their own style.
GS: That is fundamental because one cannot expect young people to be strictly indoctrinated. Unfortunately, today many young people are too much influenced by the fashion of musical philology, which is undoubtedly important but it must not be taken as a medical recipe otherwise it does not work, and influenced by interpretations which have become the fashion because that is what they hear. This is the principal disaster. That is why students must have the chance of listening to old performances. They must build a personal point of view. Often the model of a piece of music listened to the night before could influence one and this is not a help to evolve harmonious thought.
GFA: As regards the Academy, I know it lasts over a period of three or two years. I know you don’t give short or summer masterclasses and that you have a very specific point of view on this issue.
GS: In the past they have asked me to give short masterclasses and summer masterclasses, even those lasting one week, but I have always refused. The reason is that it's impossible to understand both the level of a student's musical education and his humane attitudes in a week, and vice-versa the student is not able to empathise with the teacher. These kinds of courses are often a good business for those who organise them. I have preferred to create my own academy with longer courses, a three-year one for younger students and another two-year one for those who want to specialise. Many students already have a Conducting Degree and work on their own, so they have the chance to do something they have never done before. Certainly, it’s not possible to do such courses in a conservatory. It's a matter of time and also of ideals.
GFA: We must emphasise that an orchestra is always present at your lessons, and this is very important.
GS: Certainly, because the orchestra represents the conductor's instrument and as such it has to be present above all at the beginning so one can fully understand one’s environment. Above all to understand, not only the relationship between the conductor and the musicians, but also of the men and women so as to understand human relationships. Every musician perceives music in a different way, and even the conductor is seen differently. Some prefer the precision of the gesture. Others the imaginative qualities or the capacities of phrasing. There's a huge variety. A young conductor should keep in mind all these human attitudes because he has to learn how to deal with an orchestra just because it's not a keyboard where all the keys are the same. The more he is able to “get in tune” with his musicians, the best he can express himself.
GFA: This is especially important for the inexperienced who believe that the conductor is only a celebrity who keeps time. During your courses the students can understand how their fellow students study certain scores in different types of ways and above all what is incredible is that the sound can change depending on who gets onto the podium, even if it’s always the same composition. This is often unknown, but actually it is an impressive change.
GS: Each orchestra mostly reacts according to what the director emanates at that moment. I always say that when a performer sees how a conductor gets off the taxi with his bag, the way he walks, the way he greets, the way he looks, the way he shakes hands, he can already understand the rhythm of the conductor. Again, the way he climbs onto the podium, the way he looks at the orchestra and the way he gets ready to give the first up beat, has already given rhythm to the orchestra and above all the sound. We must not forget that the conductor, like all musicians, is there to create a sound above all, and naturally, within this sound there is a world; a physical world, a philosophical world, a metaphysical world. Naturally, everyone has his own world. Apart from a few cases, this does not happen in conservatories, where it's believed that one must only set up a good execution. It’s all a series of things to create.
GFA: In addition to studying Conducting, you started studying Composition with an illustrious Teacher, Bruno Bettinelli. He also taught Muti, Abbado, Pollini and many other illustrious colleagues. Do you still recommend studying Composition nowadays to your students?
GS: For me studying Composition is a requirement, not only advice. The study of Composition, of Harmony, of Counterpoint, and the Fugue represent basic musical notions for a future conductor without which he will very unlikely be able to completely comprehend an orchestral score. He will very often probably limit himself to the pure organizational aspect, the music attacks, the phrasing to formulate in a certain way. However, there may be a conductor who may understand a composition without having basic grammatical notions, but certainly a young musician should have undergone very good studies. However, this doesn’t apply only to a conductor but to all musicians, and it's important to have a good teacher and a good aptitude to take on these studies… but these studies are indispensable and should be basic knowledge common to all musicians.
GFA: …together with listening and studying the repertoire; and studying should not be aimed solely at one's instrument, at one’s context.
GS: Yes, listening. For a long time, there have been many courses of musical analysis in conservatories, and they can be useful, even if there are rather ‘different’ kinds. Nevertheless, a musician, a performer, must be able create a musical synthesis and this is the course that would be needed, because that’s what is missing nowadays in conservatories. There are performers all over the world who analyse scores even in too much detail, but those who are able to give a meaning, a uniqueness to a musical performance are very rare. It is inevitable that a conductor, like all musicians, will want to express himself, but he should do so in the best of ways, in a more intimate, more interior manner, as very often it becomes just a show. As regards an aspect of musical performance, which at these present times has become a paradox, is the research for perfection at any cost. Here in my record collection there's a recording of a Mozart's piano concerto played by Schnabel and conducted by Rodziński, a live performance with the NY Philharmonic. In the end Schnabel seems to have a small amnesia and the concert stops. The pianist and the conductor whisper about the point where to resume, they start again and finish in a great way and the audience applauses with enthusiasm. Nowadays, something like this would hardly be conceivable. An audience that is born with, too used to and too spoilt by listening to CDs would not accept such a thing anymore. This prevaricates and overrides musical and interpretative accuracy during a performance. Precision has turned into a sort of drug addiction for the audience with which they can’t do without, which is to go and listen to the absolute precision of the orchestra. Honestly, I have to say that I have listened to imprecise but fascinating music performances in my life, and even performed by the Great.
GFA: Of course.
GS: Today it is rare to find an interpreter who is able to create something special. However, I think you can find it at levels which are not so high. That is, I believe that a great performance can also be found at lower levels. I don't mean at an amateurish level, but I am speaking about the level of pure love for Music. What we really lack is a general catchment area of great love for Music. Love Music. In England and in the Northern countries there are many skillful amateur orchestras and we do not have any at those levels in Italy. We have many small professional orchestras but, unfortunately, also amateurish and we do not have good amateur ones. This is due to our musical history and also because of a lack of both basic and professional musical education in our country. This is very deficient. Music survives not only because of the Berliner Philharmonic, the London Symphony or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Music lives thanks to little musical ensembles that keep it alive, such as bands, choirs, smaller orchestras and so on. These are more easily found in smaller towns and in more modest situations, but this is what keeps music alive. Today Music lives not because of CDs but thanks to enthusiasts and connoisseurs of Music who live with it seriously every day in every way by performing and teaching it.
GFA: Thank goodness!
GS: Thank goodness! Certainly.
GFA: Good. I have to say that your activity at the Academy is highly valuable because it gives and keeps the so-called founding principles...
GS: Yes, in this way, yes, and let’s say that I include myself amongst some eminent colleagues for whom I have much esteem. We are still the last custodians of the last Message of the last great Masters and great Musicians who lived Music in a completely different way.
GFA: Maestro, thank you very much for this most enjoyable and interesting conversation and I would like to remind everyone of the internet address of the Academy:
http://www.italianconductingacademy.eu where it is possible to find the link to the blog in which you have published some of your essays.
GS: This is my first one published a few years ago with my thoughts on how I conceive Orchestral Conducting. Naturally, it’s not a treatise on orchestral conducting.
GFA: Looking through your book, we realise that these are thoughts born out your experience as a Musician. Really interesting. Thank you again.
GS: Thank you.