Maestro Gottfried Makes Conducting Debut with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra

On the 29th of June, Maestro Yaron Gottfried will be making his much anticipated Italian debut as a guest conductor with the world-renowned Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The concert’s program features an intriguing combination of Beethoven’s the Fifth Symphony with Concerto for Piccolo by Lowell Liebermann.

More details on the event are here. We are happy to share with you selections from engaging and illuminating interviews that Maestro Gottfried gave to the Italian media last week.

1) At what age did you begin studying music?

I come from a musical family. My father, Dan Gottfried, is a well-known jazz pianist in Israel. Music was always around me since an early age; I started studying piano at age 5.

2) Please tell us more about your studies, and why did you choose conducting and composition?

I was always attracted to the magical sound of the orchestra, and at around age 16 I found that only playing the piano was not satisfying enough for me. I was interested in composing and improvisation, and had tremendous curiosity and interest in the big symphonic works. This eventually led me to start my own conducting lessons.

I think that composing is the best way to express yourself musically, if you have the talent. It is also the highest and most important art form, because once done, it is here to stay for years. For me, music is a calling; it is not a decision to become a musician. It’s much deeper than that.

3) What do you feel when you’re conducting?

When I’m conducting, I’m 100% focused on the music and the orchestra I’m leading. When working with a good orchestra, the feeling is fantastic and exciting; there is a sense that you can really fulfill the promise that is ingrained in the score. That’s a wonderful feeling.

4) Your output includes Blindness, inspired by Saramago. Why this novel?

I was on a tour in America preparing a program based on music from the theater (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn, “Hamlet” by Shostakovich etc.). While reading this book in my travels, it became clear to me that I must express my musical thoughts related to this fascinating book. I chose a few parts from the book which inspired four different musical episodes, which are not trying to tell the story, but give an impression of those chosen parts. We played the work in that concert with a narrator reading some of the text before the performance.

5) In your opinion, what is blindness in our society?

I think that nowadays, everything is becoming more and more extreme. People are more divided, and care less about society. Violence is broadcast on many media channels, especially Facebook, which contributes to a violent global atmosphere.

6) You’re going to debut at the MMF: is this your first time with an Italian orchestra?

It is my first time working with an Italian orchestra, and I’m very happy I get to work with such a distinguished and wonderful orchestra as the Maggio Musicale. My works were also performed at some festivals in Italy, and years ago I myself performed in a jazz festival in Italy.

7) How did you choose such a peculiar programme for your Italian debut?

It’s interesting that you call it peculiar. The Orchestra asked me to do the Liebermann’s Piccolo Concerto, and I happily agreed. Then I suggested some classical well known works to balance it off, and eventually we decided on Beethoven’s the 5th Symphony. I believe that it is important to perform good contemporary music in regular concerts and not just in special series. The Piccolo Concerto is very melodic and harmonic, it is not an avant-garde work at all, it is just beautiful colorful music. In the same program we give the audience a masterpiece like the 5th, so to my taste the audience is actually gaining more, and getting a broader emotional and intellectual experience.

8) What is your fascination with Italy?

I love Italy, and I’ve traveled with my family to Tuscany almost every year in the past six years. One of my good friends has a beautiful villa in Tuscany and we stay there on summer vacations, exploring beautiful cities, villages and festivals. Italy is a place of so much tradition, where classical music and art were born; it has great food and great cars. It is an inspiring country.

9) Last October you replaced Zubin Mehta as conductor of the IPO. As you know, the debut concert of the orchestra was conducted by Arturo Toscanini on the 26th of December, 1936. The Italian connection seems like a sign of fate… What is your opinion about Toscanini?

Toscanini is one of the greatest conductors of all time, and is an inspiration for every conductor, whether you agree with his interpretations or not. I’ve watched many of his videos (and I also showed them to my students) and have read some books about him. He was a character like nobody else; today you cannot afford to treat an orchestra like he did, but he got his way.

Replacing Maestro Zubin Mehta and working closely with the IPO, which has such a wonderful tradition of hosting great conductors, is of course an honor.

10) What’s your connection to Zubin Mehta?

Since I was a kid, I have attended many concerts of Maestro Zubin Mehta. As you know, he has been the Music Director of the IPO for 50 years, and I have met him on several occasions. He heard very good things about my work with the IPO, and that is why they keep inviting me to work. We met after the concert series in October, when I replaced him and he thanked me with great warmth. He is a living legend.

11) According to Toscanini, “any donkey can conduct, but it is not so simple to make music”: what do you think?

In general, that is true, because people confuse beat counting with conducting. Counting bars and waving is not enough, and has very little to do with conducting. Conductors should fulfill the promise that the composer left on paper, and therefore needs to deeply understand the score, the intention behind it, and the secrets that lie in the notes. Only then can you try to convey it to the orchestra, in the most inspiring and effective way possible; which, of course, not everyone can do.

12) Which musicians do you consider as inspirational artists?

I think Bach is the greatest of all, he is always an inspiration. If I have to point to someone from our time which I consider a mentor, I would say Leonard Bernstein, who I had the honor to meet when I was still in high school, and went to play for him.

He is also an all-around incredible musician, conductor, teacher, and great composer who mastered both the classical and jazz worlds. He is a great example of a true, authentic musician who kept his loyalty to himself. On the one hand he wrote “West Side Story,” and on the other conducted Mahler in Vienna. He was also a fantastic pianist and for me that is the model of how a musician should be.

13) Is there an Italian composer you hold in great esteem?  

There are so many important wonderful Italian composers, that it is really hard to mention just one… it’s not only the composers but also the style of the Italian music, which affected all of the classical composers in the world. If I need to choose, just last month I was lucky to conduct “Pines of Rome” by Respighi, with the IPO. This is such a wonderful work, describing the different locations in Rome with nostalgic memories. It’s beautifully written for the orchestra, so for this month he’s my chosen Italian composer.

14) And then jazz: what does it mean to you?

Jazz is my second language; I started learning it when I was very little at home. My father is a very well-known jazz pianist in Israel. I started playing jazz when I was a teenager and never stopped. I truly believe that this is one of the highest art forms that exists today; it is both very intellectual and emotional, and it is so dynamic and evolves fast. It’s become a major influence on the classical contemporary composers. The ability to improvise is a must for any musician. It just makes you a better musician, helps you more deeply understand the concepts of form, harmony and development, and most of all, express yourself in real time, on the spot. It means you have to free your mind. That is why I keep writing projects for jazz trio and orchestra or choir, and bring them together to the stage.

15) Classical conductor, jazz musician and composer; how do these sides of your career influence your view of music?

I think that being a musician with an open mind, who experiences and masters different styles, gives me a better and wider perspective on music in general. I can easily find links between the various genres, and that helps me both as a conductor, and even more as composer, especially these days when everything is possible in music. Inspiration can come from many different sources.

16) You were born and educated in Israel: is that important to your way of making music? Does it make any difference? 

We are a product of our surroundings, environment, and the culture that we came from. Israel is a very young country, with many immigrants, so musically it is a very interesting and diverse place. You can hear music from Russia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Egypt, Germany, etc. Many of the first generation of classical musicians were immigrants who came from Europe. They mostly taught the European tradition, but at the same time these composers were trying to create new local music that was inspired by tunes they heard from immigrants from Yemen, Iraq and other countries. Because of this, a new style was born, a fusion between Western and Middle Eastern music.

17) Do you think that orchestras are still recognisable by a “national” sound?

There are certain orchestras which are recognized by a national sound, most of them are the famous ones with a typical recognizable sound, which is the result of the tradition and mainly the school the musicians are coming from. Take, for example, the Viennese school and the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Russian school and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, or the New York Phil. All of these orchestras have a strong tradition and unity in the style of playing, which makes their sound characteristic and significant.

18) What is the most important thing you look for in a concert?

I look to create an honest and authentic performance, something that is beyond academic, to tell the story of the work. Trying to create this magical moment, which is not always possible to achieve, but it is still my goal.

From my experience, when you are telling the story, and you are fully committed to the music and the musicians, the audience feels it.

19) How would you describe your style as a composer? 

I think the fact that I’m well versed in different styles of music is reflected in my work. I am a person of colors and shapes, harmony and polyrhythmic.  Most of my works are communicative.  They can be complicated to understand and grasp on first hearing, but they’re not just an intellectual experience, but also emotional. I love to create new combinations, such as concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, or many works that I have written for jazz trio and orchestra.

I recomposed “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky for jazz trio and orchestra, in a way that brings a new, fresh, and up-to-date interpretation. Fortunately, I have a lot of performances of these unique works, and I am working with a very good publisher – Sikorski International.

My style keeps changing, and I am always trying to bring something new and different, so it’s a journey of exploring new possibilities for expressing oneself through sound.

20) What do you dream to achieve through music? And what do you plan for the near future? 

Like most musicians, my basic urge is to create and to have people listen to my creation, and the more the merrier.

I am working to complete a new song cycle, which I recently started, as well as two new orchestral works. My upcoming season includes performances in Macau, where I’m going to conduct Gluck’s Opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” concerts with Shenzhen Symphony, Beijing Symphony and the Florida Symphony, and many orchestras in Israel, including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, The Opera Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Beer-Sheva, and many others.

I would be happy to perform my version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” with more great orchestras around the world.

Here is Maestro Gottfried’s interview in Musica.

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