Enrique Mazzola can’t stop smiling. In a clutch of impressive debuts coming up this season – including the Oslo and New Japan Philharmonics and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra – the young Italian conductor is particularly thrilled by the prospect of working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with whom he will make his debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November. ‘They are full of passion and life,’ he enthuses. ‘They really know what they want.’ Mazzola, who has been making waves with his expert interpretations of both opera and contemporary music, and is considered one of the most dynamic international conductors of his generation, envisages ‘an atmosphere of great exchange’, with the OAE, looking forward to learning from their ‘spirit and experience’ while he will impart his own infectious brand of ‘Italianicity: my joy, my happiness.’ He tells me how orchestral players often remark on the near-permanent smile on his face and admits: ‘I am always very happy when I conduct; it is always a moment of real joy for me’.
To Mazzola, what makes music – even tragic music – so joyful has much to do with what he calls the ‘hidden dramaturgy’ behind the notes on the page. ‘I feel this very much,’ he explains. ‘My Italian or Southern soul pushes me to see a story behind things; through the lines of the music. I see brief moments, not an A-Z, of course, but a… situation behind the music that make it impossible not to smile, to feel such joy.’ His programme for the OAE concert, which contains both Cherubini’s Medea and Berlioz’s Cleopatra, certainly suggests drama; but there is a deeper sense of narrative to the concert, which also includes symphonies by Mozart and Méhul. Bridging the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, this music, Mazzola says, reflects a ‘strange moment, because the last strictly classical pieces are slowly dying; people are breaking the classical order. With a composer like Méhul, for example, I see the tension of a man who is feeling, all around himself, that the perfection of the halo of classicism will be destroyed.’
Mazzola, who chatters about his music-making with the enthusiasm and ardour of the perpetual student, peppering our conversation newspaper articles, book references, and switching between languages when he wants to express something differently, has a fundamental belief that ‘there is no music if there is no humanitas’ (here he must eventually revert to Latin). ‘This is my starting idea when I start with an orchestra – and this also encompasses the possibility that we can understand each other; to feel that music is a human art. I am very disturbed when I see an artist – and I am afraid to say there are a lot – who works in arrogance, who says: ‘I know exactly how to do this’. I just can’t believe that, I have a great suspicion of it. In every concert there are two, ten, twenty, infinite truths…’
One of the problems, he believes, is that we are still living in the shadow of ‘the post-romantic musician, the musician who studies 18 hours a day and has no social context; this idea that the musician is a category apart’. Mazzola is refreshingly humble and outspoken about this notion, which he sees not only as outdated, but as a threat to music’s future. ‘For my generation of musicians, one of our missions – if I may – is to fill that gap; to try and speak to the people through open communication. I’m not sure how much the ritual of the concert hall is still valid. I mean, of course, I do it – in four hours I will be down in that orchestra pit [at his much-beloved Glyndebourne, where he has been conducting La Cenerentola to rave reviews]. But on the other hand I think it’s time to think differently: I dream of concerts where we stop and explain what’s going on; concerts where the public and the orchestra wear the same clothes; where orchestras and operas open their rehearsals to the public. We are not a world apart, and we risk belonging to the antiquarian market.’
A consequence of this, Mazzola believes, is audiences thinking: ‘I’d love to go to this concert but I’m not prepared for it’. He believes it is the musicians’ responsibility not to reinforce this artificial barrier but to reach out and let everybody in. ‘You would not have to be prepared to go and see a Robbie Williams gig!’ he points out; in his view everyone should feel just as welcome at a classical event – even if they find themselves dozing off (with a chuckle, he cites the great Italian critic Ennio Flaiano who actually suggested the senses are more active in the liminal zone between wakefulness and sleep).
Mazzola recalls a concert he conducted in Hanover recently when he stopped and had a conversation with the audience about what was going on musically, and hints that, should he ever be in a decision-making post at an orchestra, he will make this spirit of openness and inclusion ‘a main direction’. In the meantime, he says, ‘every way I can speak to the public is important’. He is looking forward to meeting the audience after the OAE concert, which he believes is ‘a way to stay near to the public’. He also, sweetly, tells me that he is excited to ‘have to explain my reasoning to my critics who don’t like my interpretation’, and I haven’t the heart to tell him that, with the sort of rapturous critical acclaim he has been garnering lately, he is more likely to be fending off admirers than detractors.
More info and tickets for the French Connections concert on 9th November at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: Southbank Centre
© Clemency Burton-Hill/Askonas Holt Ltd http://www.askonasholt.co.uk/