Mariage a la mode

Edward Seckerson celebrates the partnership between Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly and Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Riccardo Chailly has this crazy notion that in the year 2010, or thereabouts, someone on a bicycle somewhere in Amsterdam will be whistling a tune by Edgard Varese. Someone other than himself, that is. But stranger things have happened here. He happened, and is still happening here, and even his sternest critics would be hard-pushed to deny what that has meant for the Dutch capital's world-famous orchestra. After almost 25 years of musical matrimony with the eminently upstanding (and Dutch) Bernard Haitink, a progressive Italian with a penchant for the avant-garde promises to love, honour, and obey an orchestra for whom tradition is less a source of pride than a code of practice. And all this without a pre-nuptial agreement.

But it happened: the Dutchman flew and the Italian arrived, armed with scores by Maderna, Petrassi and Bussotti. These were the names on the programme at his Concertgebouw debut in 1985, and such was the indifference to them that a mere 250 souls turned out (in a hall seating 2,000). But Chailly had seen the future, and the future was a full house. In less than three years he appeared to have persuaded this most retrospective of orchestras that the only way forward was forward: fast forward. He was unanimously elected their new chief conductor.

The honeymoon was over before it began. From the first it was hard to see how certain differences might be resolved. Chailly was, in his own words, "radical, violent, provocative" in pursuit of change. He campaigned "like a politician" for new music, he was "the Robespierre of new music". And even the traditional late-romantic fare of the orchestra - Mahler, in particular (the jealously guarded province of his legendary predecessor, Willem Mengelberg) - was subject to his "new broom" approach. "But we always did Strauss and Mahler this way" came back the response, the assumption being that this way - the traditional way - was the only way. The Concertgebouw still play from Mengelberg's marked-up parts. But Chailly's own "blue pencil" has proved farther reaching. "In Amsterdam there is an incredible understanding of this music, from bar to bar," he says, "but what I needed to encourage, to insist upon, was a more explorative approach." Meaning an end to the kind of regressive thinking that was starting to turn the orchestra into another of Amsterdam's museums, a place where music was exhibited rather than performed. Chailly's dilemma was simple: how to keep faith with the past while making ready for the new millennium?

The man sitting opposite me in the Keyser Restaurant, just beside the Concertgebouw, doesn't look like a revolutionary. Or sound like one. He is, as ever, affable, courteous, comfortable. He looks like he belongs here. Indeed, the booth he occupies might well have been occupied by Mengelberg himself. Don't misunderstand Chailly: he is proud of what he has inherited in this town. If Mengelberg had not fought so hard for his contemporaries - like Mahler and Strauss, but also Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and, later, Shostakovich - the Concertgebouw would never have made the worldwide impact it did. So the seeds are sown, and even those that fall on stony ground eventually begin to sprout. "You have to be patient," says Chailly. "You sow those seeds and wait. Growth is such a gradual process. And in the meantime there are ups and downs. But then you begin to hear the continuity of your work making a difference, and that, believe me, is so satisfying..."

It's all a question of attitude. Stay inquisitive, says Chailly. The idea that he might ever "arrive" at the final solution to a piece is anathema to him. "It's a never-ending process of investigation, of finding your own identity and then changing it and finding a different means of expression. That's what keeps my relationship with the orchestra fresh, too. Whether it's new repertoire, new music, or a return to old, I need to begin again, to study from scratch in order to gain the motivation to continue in this profession." He cites Pierre Boulez as the symbol of regeneration. He cites Simon Rattle. He feels a particular kinship with him, inasmuch as he, too, has rejected the glitzy, sensation-seeking life of an itinerant conductor in favour of musical monogamy (give or take the odd one-night stand).

After almost a decade together, Chailly recognises the enormous distance he and his orchestra have travelled towards mutual understanding. And surely it's better, more exciting, to travel than to arrive. He also recognises that he has himself mellowed in the intervening years. "In the beginning, I over-compensated for my youth. I was hungry for change, I had everything to prove, and no authority. So I would impose my ideas. I was..." And we're back to those three little words again: "Radical, violent, provocative".

Could it be that old habits die hard? This very morning Chailly was, by his own admission, inciting the orchestra to acts of extreme depravity. Bartok's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (one of the pieces they'll be bringing to the Proms next week) was on the stands, and work was in progress on the final 10 minutes - the X-rated minutes. "So the second and third trombones have these weird glissandi in canon, and there is this dark, sinister, almost dirty melody - sometimes touching minor seconds - for the oboes rising from it, and a Wagner tuba interfering..." Interfering? In the Concertgebouw? And this from an orchestra that was once reluctant to make an ugly sound. "I told my trombones - you are a bleeding, unsatisfied, sex maniac, and you absolutely refuse to die - now let me hear it..."

That at least provoked a rare moment of hilarity.

There aren't too many of those in this bastion of respectability. But Chailly's still working on it. One of the hardest things for his audiences to accept is the "late-romantic aura" of his Strauss and Mahler. He identifies closely with the forward-looking nature of these scores (scores like Strauss's Don Quixote - "the most daring of all his tone-poems", and the climax of Tuesday's all-Strauss Prom) and fervently believes how important it is to get to them "retrospectively" - from where we stand now. So it is exciting "to preserve, but not indulge, the traditional `golden sound' of the orchestra, but then to interfere with it..."

That word again. Chailly uses it a lot. To dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists, it's a dirty word. There are those who would claim that he interfered with Brahms's Second Symphony when he set down his refreshing Decca recording (pick of the crop in BBC Radio 3's "Building a Library" recently). Tradition dictates a pompous maestoso for the first movement, but Chailly could hear "a floating tempo", a swift, airy alla breve. The symphony was effectively reborn.

Then there was Mahler's Fifth. In Amsterdam just recently he was accused of interfering, as in re-touching, the coda of the big central scherzo movement. It had been that long since anyone had done precisely as Mahler requested that it sounded new - like a re-write. We're talking here about a single tempo change, an unexpected piu mosso schnell - like a sudden shift of gear, a filmic jump-cut, further compounded by the use of wooden sticks in the timpani. Compromise moments like this and the shock of newness, the modernity, goes out of Mahler. Chailly is not for compromise.

He was to have made his Royal Opera debut next season with a new production of Rossini's Barber of Seville. But after months and months in the dark, so to speak, as to where this might happen, he was finally shown a theatre that he considered unsuitable. He's very picky about his Rossini. If there's a more zealous champion of this composer anywhere in the world, I've yet to hear of them. Chailly will tell you that there isn't a single second- rate or second-hand bar (even those containing "recycled" music) in the whole of Rossini. And you'd better believe him. He's just recorded all three Cantatas from "the three ages" of Rossini - his youth, his maturity and the years of "the great silence". And his first opera recording in seven years is of Il Turco in Italia, with Cecilia Bartoli singing Fiorilla in what is laughingly referred to as the "mezzo" option. I say laughingly because the great Act 2 scena - "Squallida veste" (which Callas cut) - sends the singer spinning up to a high D.

It's a long way from Rossini to Varese, of course, but Chailly's Varese edition - including the original version, for mega orchestra (150-plus), of Ameriques and Ionisation on original (percussion) instruments - is now under way. So that stranger on a bicycle in the year 2010 - whoever he or she is - has a little time to get acquaintedn

Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Proms: Tues, Wed, 7.30pm Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on Radio 3