Gianni come lately

Gianandrea Noseda has waited a long time before tackling Mahler [right]. But is the new principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic up to the challenge? Lynne Walker meets the Gergiev protégé on the eve of his Manchester debut

There's an intense feeling of attraction tinged with awe and trepidation – like a wonderful woman so sublime that she scares you. A big, beautiful giant." It's not the most conventional description of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, but the young Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has as distinctive a way with words as he has with "la musica". As the city prepares for the Commonwealth Games, the BBC Philharmonic launches Manchester's musical celebrations at the Bridgewater Hall with Mahler's "beautiful giant", officially introducing Noseda, who will replace Yan Pascal Tortelier as the orchestra's principal conductor in September.

The post is Noseda's first chance to take charge of a leading international orchestra, with the obvious benefits of BBC broadcasts and commercial recordings providing the icing on the cake. The announcement came out of the blue, but, unusually for a nearly 100-strong orchestra, the decision was unanimous. Take his rehearsal technique. "He knows exactly what he wants, how to get it, and how to keep it fresh," I'm told. And his musicianship? "He has a real Italianate sense of style, as well as great sensitivity; he lets the music breathe."

And his credentials seem impeccable. Until he was 27, his destiny appeared to be at the keyboard. "Through composition and playing piano in a lot of chamber music, I got to know every instrument. I kept asking questions, so now I understand a lot about technique, how different sounds are produced, and the difficulties of each instrument," he says. "Of course, I didn't know then that I would become a conductor. I'd been happy as a pianist but I became fascinated by the idea of making music without actually producing the notes. Perhaps this goes back to watching my father, an amateur choirmaster, move his hands and the singers coming alive. I imagined the conductor as a sort of magician, conjuring up sweet sounds through other people."

In 1994 he won the Cadaqués conducting competition and the opportunity to conduct 18 Spanish orchestras. He immersed himself in Spanish music, including Granados's opera Goyescas, which he first performed in the composer's birthplace of Lerida, and which he conducts at the Proms in a double-bill with Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole.

He also gave some concerts in his home city of Milan and attended courses in Vienna and in Siena, studying with Donato Renzetti, Myung-Whun Chung and, most important, Valery Gergiev. Meeting and working with Gergiev proved to be a defining moment in Noseda's career. After conducting The Marriage of Figaro in St Petersburg, Noseda had a phone call out of the blue. "I was on holiday in the Alps and Maestro Gergiev called me and went straight to the point: 'Would you like to be principal guest conductor in my theatre?' I said, 'Are you joking?' and he replied, 'No, I'm serious.' I accepted without hesitation but that night I couldn't sleep at all."

So, in addition to spells with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, where he is principal guest conductor, he now spends three months a year in St Petersburg with the Kirov, where his contract has a couple more years to run and where he enjoys a good relationship with the Mariinsky Theatre. He speaks Russian, which he learnt while living and working there, finding, he explains, so many words rooted in Latin. Words dazzle Noseda, it seems, as he clutches in the air for the appropriate English phrase, delighted when he captures it, equally thrilled when it's supplied for him, and solemnly repeating it in his dark, velvety tones.

But he struggles a little for the right expression to describe his approach to one of the biggest challenges in musical history, Mahler's highly operatic Eighth Symphony, a rare triumph for the composer when he conducted its premiere in 1910. "The important thing is finding the tension in a phrase, across each movement, and within the whole work. And imagining and then achieving the exact sound you want." The first of the symphony's two movements is an affirmatory setting of "Veni Creator Spiritus" – "an imperative," Noseda declares, "not a mere invitation".

The secret of success lies in pinning down the elusive philosophical and musical connections between this opening part and the second, an apparently self-sufficient grand scena based on the final scene of Goethe's Faust, in which, Noseda says, "everyone is climbing, straining upwards, grasping for the metaphysical heights". With the combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic, eight soloists, the City of Birmingham Symphony Choruses and the Bach Choir, the audience on Saturday will, as Mahler envisaged, surely be able to imagine "the universe beginning to ring and resound... no longer human voices but planets and suns revolving".

"As a conductor I came to Mahler quite late, only two years ago," says Noseda. "I waited because I thought maybe you needed to be very mature to interpret his music, which is so difficult to bring off well." Now Noseda is making up for lost time, following the Eighth Symphony in Manchester with Mahler's Fifth, coupled with another big work in the Austro-German tradition, Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. His other programmes in the BBC Philharmonic's 2002-2003 season are characterised by his experience in the Russian repertoire, including Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, and four Russian piano concertos to close Manchester's Piano 2003 festival. Glimpses of times past from a 20th-century viewpoint surface in the once-Russian Stravinsky's tribute to the Neapolitan madrigalist Gesualdo, Monumentum, and in Bruno Maderna's imaginative take on English music from the 16th century, Music of Gaiety.

He closes the season with Verdi's Requiem, further evidence of his passion for music that engages many different emotions, involving the listener in a theatrical and personal way. "What is Verdi doing here? Is it an opera, a sacred piece, what? No, here was a man not content with churning out Parma ham or Parmesan but who wanted to create something so original, so Italian, so meaningful from deep within himself," says Noseda. "You don't have to respect music, you have to love it. If true affection is there, you can make mistakes, that is allowed. Respect makes you too distant, and wary. If I'm honest, I always love the music we're playing now, today. It's the best." His first CD with the orchestra, performing Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, reflects his Slavonic interests; the next three discs, for Chandos, will feature music by Respighi and Prokofiev, "one of the great geniuses of the last century".

He's eager to learn from the BBC Philharmonic, "from its brilliance and from the quality of individual musicians. I always try to react to an orchestra, to respect its culture and tradition, but when you conduct it for the first time, you feel you have to prove yourself. You try too hard. Here I could just be myself and concentrate on making music with these people."

And as for Manchester, which he is undoubtedly seeing at its best as it enjoys a flourishing renaissance, it reminds him of his native city of Milan, "where I grew up in a very exciting cultural and business atmosphere". He'll feel even more at home when he can travel to and from the city on Virgin's new Italian-designed Pendolino tilting trains, though it's doubtful if their timing will ever be as reliable as his.

Mahler's Eighth Symphony is at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000), on Saturday. The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday at 7.30pm

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