Chamberfest: Tafemusik’s new director, Elisa Citterio, brings l’italianità to Tafelmusik

Elisa Citterio. Photo: Monica Cordiviola

For more than 35 years the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was led by violinist Jeanne Lamon, who assumed the role of music director in 1981. The chamber orchestra, dedicated to the music of the Baroque period, has a worldwide reputation for the quality of its performance. Now it is in new hands. Lamon stepped aside in 2016 (she remains as music director emerita) and the Italian violinist Elisa Citterio has stepped into the position. She makes her first appearance in Ottawa as music director this week. Before a full concert of Vivaldi, she answered questions from ARTSFILE. The following is an edited transcript.

Q. Welcome to Ottawa Ms. Citterio. You are presenting a concert of Vivaldi. Can you tell me about the selection of pieces being performed and why you have chosen them?

A. Thank you, I am pleased to present Vivaldi con amore, an Italian program which we are going to record next October. This represents my first recording with Tafelmusik, so it means a lot for me to bring some of the strongest elements of my background. The program includes concertos by Vivaldi that feature different soloists, a way to show the amazing skills of Tafelmusik’s orchestra members. The title Con Amore has different connotations: On one hand, the two violin, four violin and bassoon concertos are somewhat wistful, emphasizing a more romantic notion of love, and demand a high level of technical virtuosity. On the other hand, we have four brilliant pieces highlighting love that is more innocent and playful. Most of all, we want to offer this program to our audiences “with love.”

Q. What does the Red Priest‘s music mean to you?

A. I can say that in the collective imagination, Vivaldi truly represents “l’italianità,” or the Italian character. This is because his music describes and evokes landscapes, states of mind, and characters in a very simple and direct way. I might even attempt a comparison: An Italian might gesticulate and use his or her body in order to be understood by those who don’t speak the same language. Similarly, Vivaldi’s music speaks directly to people’s hearts.

Q. You studied with the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

A. I received rigorous training while I was a student, but the experience with the Accademia was very formative for two reasons: I had to learn how to manage relationships in a bigger orchestra (compared to the ones I had played in to that point). Furthermore, I was chosen as concertmaster, which meant I was in direct contact with guest directors, soloists, and orchestral trainers. I was really put to the test when, for example, they asked me to prepare the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in four weeks that were already packed with rehearsals and other commitments! This was my debut at La Scala as a soloist alongside the orchestra’s first viola, Danilo Rossi. They gave me only 10 minutes to decide whether to accept.

Q. Coming from a very musical family, when, why and how did you decide on the violin?

A. We lived and breathed music all day long at home. But oddly, it was a video of an orchestra I saw on TV when I was five years old that caught my attention. The co-ordinated movement of all those bows fascinated me to the point where I asked my mother for a violin. From that day, I’ve never stopped playing.

Q. What prompted you to investigate early music/Baroque music?

A. My mother probably influenced my listening, playing a lot of Bach’s music on the radio. She had a strong preference for  music that was more intimate, simple, cool, and perhaps an antidote to emotional upheaval of a certain romantic period. But I was really fascinated when I listened to my first recording on CD. It was Corelli’s Op. 5 played by Chiara Banchini. I loved it.  Later, Chiara became my teacher.

Q. Are you an early music “purist?”

A. I couldn’t be a “purist” because I have been playing both modern and baroque instruments for 22 years. Actually, this allowed to me to understand how the sound of the violin was born and how it has developed so far. It’s something subtle and really difficult to explain, but I think that performing such a wide range of repertoire, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky, or later, has given me a huge range of colours, sounds and atmospheres. I would say that playing both instruments (or more if we consider the classical violin) gives something more to each one.

Q. There is little doubt that Vivaldi’s music, indeed much of the Baroque repertoire, remains very popular today. Why do you think it has this appeal?

A. There are certain characteristics that connect music from the beginning to the present day. For example, the first dances have a sort of repeated bass line (called ostinato) and an improvised melody that are quite close to jazz traditions (the biggest differences are the instruments used and sounds). But an important feature of Baroque music is its relative simplicity when compared to, for example, Romantic works. I think about how we are continually surprised and fascinated looking at monumental historical works like Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Eiffel tower, the architecture in Venice or Roman churches … we will still enjoy listening to Baroque music in the future: the old and the new need each other. The new is informed by the old, and the old offers a constant source of inspiration.

Q. Baroque music was written all over Western Europe. Is there a distinct Italian version? 

A. The reference point for most Italian music is the human voice. Beginning with the madrigals, Italian instrumental music has always given more importance to the melody rather than the harmony. Other characteristics of Italian baroque music are the dynamics, which are often characterized by strong contrasts, rich ornamentation, long phrases, and what we call cantabile (literally, singable) versus strumentale (instrumental).

Q. Do you prefer the Italian sound and style?

A. I am Italian, and of course I recognize this as a musician. I appreciate different styles, but if I would have to choose only two pieces of music, my heart would prefer something around Monteverdi and Bach and their styles. I would say that I couldn’t listen to some Italian music with a different concept of the sound, but I could probably listen to some English music with a sort of Italian sound.

Q. When Ms. Lamon announced she was stepping down, had you already been aware of Tafelmusik?

A. I heard about her stepping down late, but it was something in the air. I already knew Tafelmusik, but they weren’t performing much in Italy and Europe, so I’d never heard a live concert of theirs until I came here as a guest.

Q. Why were you interested in coming to Toronto to this position?

A. Sometimes, a single word can change a person’s life. In this case, it was my name and a recording that reached Tafelmusik’s ear. They invited me to guest direct a program, and I accepted, more out of curiosity than any real desire to move away from home. The encounter with Tafelmusik musicians and staff turned out to be overwhelming, and I saw a real opportunity for growth together.

Q. Tafelmusik has a well-deserved reputation for its work. Where did you/ do you want to take the ensemble?

Tafelmusik is celebrating its 40th anniversary next season and though the organization wears its age with utmost elegance, the years have been densely packed with projects, recordings, ideas, and endless pages of music. All of this experience resides within the musicians, who share their knowledge with each other and pass it along like a legacy that is bestowed upon each new member. I know that I have a lot to learn from all of them, and in turn I hope to bring them 25 years of musical experience drawn from my heart and my mind.

We have a wonderful team and we can build on what they have achieved under the excellent guidance of Jeanne Lamon. I am looking forward to creating more educational possibilities for children, to attracting a wider variety of people to our concerts, to touring in Europe and especially Italy, to commissioning new works by Canadian composers, and to trying some experimental programs.

Q. Ms. Lamon remains in an emeritus post. Do you talk a lot about the work or is she leaving you to make your own decisions?

A. I know she is always available to talk with me and offer huge advice. She is a sort of silent presence, and I know I have her support if I need it.

Q. Was she known to you before coming to Canada?

A. Yes, as an amazing leader. Very few people did what she was able to do. Actually, I think we would need at least two people to take over her position!

Q. Anything else you would like to add?

A. Tafelmusik has a new leader but she is very wonderfully supported by one of the strongest teams I have ever seen. This is something we should learn in Italy.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.