Cat among the pigeons

What's a rising star like Daniele Gatti doing conducting the poor relation among London's orchestras? Giving the Royal Philharmonic a niche of its own, he tells Malcolm Hayes

So London has too many symphony orchestras, does it? Try telling that to the Royal Philharmonic. Ever since the death in 1961 of its founder, Sir Thomas Beecham, the RPO has mastered the art of survival as a peripatetic swashbuckling band that has apparently lost its empire without yet rediscovering its true role. Could this time-honoured situation at last be about to change? Experienced London orchestra-watchers will reply that pigs might also fly. But perhaps they haven't yet encountered the determination shown both by the RPO itself and its current music director.

Born 35 years ago in Milan to a pair of musical parents, Daniele Gatti's desire to conduct started early. "My father was a tenor who studied with the great Aureliano Pertile after the war," he says. "As it happened, he didn't make this his career [going into banking instead], but his example helped me. When I was 14 he took to me to La Scala to see a performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola. From then on, I was sure what I wanted to do."

A steady rise to prominence in Italy led in 1992 to Gatti's appointment as resident conductor of the Orchestra della Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. The same year he got himself noticed in these islands with his top-flight conducting of Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi (Romeo and Juliet to you and me) at Covent Garden, and was duly appointed principal guest conductor at the Royal Opera in September 1994. His debut concert that month with the RPO was followed by Vladimir Ashkenazy's precipitate and none too amicable departure as the orchestra's long-standing music director, and Gatti's appointment to take over from September 1996 (a post he now holds concurrently with that of music director of Bologna Opera).

A few months before he did so, the RPO found it had emerged from yet another recession still in one piece, but with its bank balance severely depleted. The result was the summary removal of its managing director, Paul Findlay, and head of public affairs, Ewen Balfour - the team that first brought Gatti in. This is the background against which the RPO's new music director (whose musicians already fondly call him "Signor Cats") finds himself steering Britain's "national orchestra" towards the future. It's a far from simple task, given the RPO's perceived track-record as an orchestra jostling for London dates with its rivals like a dodgem car at a funfair. Gatti's response is both imaginative and pragmatic.

"I think we have to create a new public," he says. "And I think also that we have to be realistic. There is the orchestra's residency in Nottingham, and our touring schedule, and these will remain important, but I don't think it's really understood what a big name the Royal Philharmonic is abroad. We have an 18-concert tour of America coming up, and a tour of Japan, and we had no difficulty fixing these up. Sometimes I'm asking why an orchestra like this is still seen as a Cinderella orchestra. If that's the perception, we want to rise above it.

"The real challenge for us now is London. It's like a fantastic cultural garden - there's so much going on here, with the theatre, and musicals, and opera, and so many concerts. I see no point in us trying to compete directly with the LSO, for example, by putting on about 60 concerts a year. The competition is so strong, it's so much better funded [the LSO currently receives pounds 1,165,000 a year from the Arts Council to the RPO's pounds 300,000], and we're not going to take their audiences away from them. I would like to carve out a corner of space for the Royal Philharmonic. We must look around us and ask ourselves what can we do that other orchestras are not doing."

Gatti's plans so far include the RPO's current concert series at the Barbican planned around the works of Mendelssohn, Ravel, and Richard Strauss, with another series next season contrasting Tchaikovsky and Bartk. "You might think that Mendelssohn is quite often played here," says Gatti, "but in fact he isn't." There will also be a Mahler cycle, planned with an eye to the RPO's decision to play concerts regularly at the Royal Albert Hall. Gatti is well aware that, while this huge barn of an auditorium is a natural Mecca for concert audiences during each summer's BBC Proms, a wet evening in November isn't quite the same thing.

But he feels the challenge should be taken up. "I think it's possible to develop something. Again, regular events will help. We're planning an annual concert for Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday each year: first I will conduct Verdi's Requiem, next year the German Requiem by Brahms, and then I hope we'll go on to do others. It's quite tough to get the exact dates, but they're important. We need to build on the idea that concerts are special events: we do fewer, but better in Italy; there's a tradition that opera and concert seasons are structured more like this - each one like a festival.

"More, I don't know, what can I do? I find the Royal Philharmonic among the warmest orchestras to work with. They have fame as a virtuoso orchestra. I want to keep this, and to add the adjective espressivo. This means especially working with the leader to develop the string sound." And what about the RPO's fabled tendency to mirror, a bit too faithfully, the abilities of different conductors by playing anything from brilliantly to indifferently themselves? Gatti doesn't duck the issue. "Of course, if we get to a point where we can engage someone like Kleiber, or Solti, we'll get a fantastic concert. But also when I engage a middle-level conductor, the orchestra must not play below its ability. There must be an excellent basic level. This is what I want."

He also wants a bit of management stability, and it looks as if he now has it, with John Manger's arrival last month as the RPO's managing director. Manger himself says the situation he has inherited is not as dire as rumour has it. "By the time I arrived, any financial haemorrhaging had already stopped. It's now my responsibility to develop the orchestra's business base, while Daniele is here to take the artistic decisions."

And Manger's own analysis of the problems ahead relates to Gatti's. "I think that, to attract more listeners, we have to accept that we're trying to get them to come along to the concert of the record they have at home. How do we do this? It's notoriously difficult. I think it's important to bring out the sense of human contact you get from a concert, much more than from a CD. The sense of joining in an event where fellow human beings are out there on the platform. If we can crack this one, we're on our way."

Realistically, doesn't it come down to somehow dragging potential concert- goers away from televised football? Gatti insists that the same is true in Italy. "For two days after every weekend, in the newspapers it's just football," he says. "Culture has to wait." Just like here, I suggest. "Ah, yes," says Gatti, with a grin like a Cheshire (or Lombard?) cat. "But at least you have five orchestras"n

Daniele Gatti opens the new RPO season tonight with a programme of Schoenberg, Ravel and Strauss, 7.30pm Barbican Hall, Silk St, London EC2 (0171-638 8891)

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