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17 Jul, 2020 07:21

Gianandrea Noseda: Depressing to perform for a half-empty hall but better than not at all

The performing arts are cautiously returning to the stage, having to deal with a myriad of challenges in the post-Covid era. We talked about this with Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, music director at the National Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

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The text of the interview has been edited for clarity 

Sophie Shevardnadze: Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, Music Director at National Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor at London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Great to have you with us today. Maestro, so much going on in the post-pandemic world regarding performing arts, and I'm just really glad that I get to speak to you with what's going on in classical music and philharmonic orchestras. So let's start from the beginning. With the venues that are locked down, orchestras and theaters turned to online streaming, and as a temporary solution it's fine, I guess, right? But obviously, the shared experience of life performance can't be replicated. At the same time we see how this pandemic has jump-started everything digital. I mean, people now have online education, online trade, they work online. Do you think people will continue to consume art online once the pandemic is over? 

Gianandrea Noseda: First of all, hi, everybody. I think that the possibilities that technology gives us today are important because in moments of emergency, you can use it. Even in the normal world that you can eventually use that, you can't imagine without technology, we would not be able to have this conversation between us. But one thing is just emergency and just to continue through streaming, through all the devices we have to play and to just communicate with the music through technology. And another thing is the live performance. The energetic level and emotion you can feel in a live performance, you’re absolutely right, cannot be replicated at all. So I think those things are two different kinds of ways to approach music. One is closer to recordings, and the other one is more connected with the normal day by day life. 

SS: Okay, so now that we live in this reality where we're sort of faced with a choice, and we have both of it in the nearest future, I'm thinking, for instance, on one hand, I understand the authenticity of performing live with audience, but on the other hand, look at the reach of a well-placed stream, and it's far beyond the capacity of any concert hall. What is more important, do you think, spreading the gospel to as many as possible or authentic experience? 

GN: I think we have to take advantage of both because it’s like in the old days, when you had a recording, like a CD or LP, or the radio, the broadcast without reaching people, not coming directly to the concert. So I think the most important thing is not to lose the curiosity of the live performance because something unexpected can happen there. Of course, with these instruments, we can reach a wider audience. But that, I think, can push a little bit the curiosity of the people not coming to the concert or the theater - just the curiosity to go and just to attend a live performance show. I think we should keep both things. 

SS: But for the immediate present as we speak, the divide is still very much there. Do you think financially online streams can compensate for the losses in ticket sales for orchestras? Is it even possible? 

GN: No, no, no, not at all. Not at all. Also, because most of the streaming in terms of giving us the possibility to do something where almost everything is for free. And that cannot be sustainable for any musical institution, you cannot survive. Even with the restrictions we have now, two days ago I conducted my first concert after the lockdown in Italy. And of course on stage we had to respect the distance, the social distancing, it was an open air concert, and the audience was allowed to attend not over the number of 500 people. But even so I think it was important for them to come. Open air is slightly different. But if you consider a big venue, big theater, big opera house, big concert hall with 2500, 1800 capacity, to perform only for 250 people, 300 people, of course, you cannot increase the price of the tickets to fill the gap. So I think for the moment we have a little bit to suffer financially. But I hope in the future we will go back with a little bit more attention, with a little bit more responsibility, especially respecting ourselves and the others. But I really hope and I’m sure we’ll go back to the live performances gathering a lot of people also because music is not only an individual matter. Music brings people together, gathers people together. It doesn't matter if you are on stage or just in the audience, everybody contributes to the live performance, even the audience with the energetic help. 

SS: I agree music makes the world go round. And actually I want to talk a little bit about the performance themselves, because everyone lately just talks about the audiences, and can they gather, and will they gather, and online or offline. But you know, for someone who's spent most of their life playing piano, I understand maybe as a performer, that people who live in this orchestra, right, they're in a very sad situation. I mean, yes, for instance, the venues are reopening with new regulations where you can only fill 50% of the seats, right? It's basically like an empty room. I mean, I can't even imagine what it's like playing to an empty room. And I know that some orchestras come up with really cool ways to make up for empty seats. Like, for instance, in Barcelona Opera House, they've put plants, so they’ve made it seem like the orchestra was playing to plants. Do you think you'd be able to enjoy playing to plants? 

GN: I personally enjoy playing even only for myself especially when I was a kind of player. As a conductor, I don't have this opportunity because I desperately need the cooperation of the musicians. But I think this is just a sort of limbo situation. So we have to go through this time. And for me, it's better to perform for a hundred people than to perform for no one. Of course, it’s a bit more depressing when you go on stage and you see only 200 people. But if you know, this is the limit because of the restrictions, you accept that for a while, of course, it’s not the ideal situation. And I saw that, I was also smiling to myself when I saw the plants, the flowers in Spain. I think it's nice. It's better than to see nothing, no one. Okay, you have the plants, probably they have a sort of vegetal life, and they will probably enjoy some vibrations from the music. But I repeat, music is the language of emotions. And in terms of talking to the hearts and the intellect of the people, you need this exchange. So, I strongly believe when this pandemic would be more controlled, or we can absolutely put it behind our shoulders, we will go back to a new normality, not to the old normality, a new way. So it will be a restart, we will not be reproducing what we had before. 

SS: And then I'm also thinking about the orchestra and how it's all about unity and playing piece in one breath and now you have these new guidelines where you need to space musicians apart, cordoning off brass sections with the wide screens, you know. What is it like? You don't see your first violin, it's too far away, you don't have eye contact, trumpets play behind the screen, I mean that must affect the performance, the whole thing. It must be very difficult in my opinion... 

GN: Of course, it’s more difficult, but the other face of the coin is this situation pushes every musician to be even more intensively active in listening to each other because of the distance. We don't play with the screens in Italy. So we just make the distance but we don't put the woodwinds or the brass behind screens. So they are at a distance, but the sound comes directly, of course. Usually, you have a trumpet six or seven meters from you. Two days ago I had the trumpet 15 meters [away], so the double distance. So you can adjust that, of course, in terms of quality of sound, you pay a little bit something to that. But how to keep the motivation alive during this surreal time, which is a limbo, as we call it together. I think we have to be creative. I spend a lot of time learning, of course, reading books, playing a little bit of the piano after 19 years. I didn't play the piano professionally. I did not get to play the piano professionally because it would have taken a lot of time. But to do all the kinds of things that keeps your imagination, your creativity, your life with music, very-very light, very energetic in a way. 

SS: Okay, I'm sorry for being so detailed and adamant about this, but for instance, everything like brass, woodwinds, singers, they're considered high risk in the time of COVID-19 in terms of spreading the virus via the breath droplets, right? So when you're saying we have to reinvent ourselves... How are you going to reinvent the choir in Verdi's Requiem? I don’t know, what, put two meters apart each, or we stop performing this kind of pieces for a period of time? 

GN: For a while we have to stop playing music with a lot of people involved. That is what is my perception, so no big Mahler symphony. If you want to perform a Mahler symphony, probably you would go to the No.4. But you have a song where there’s a singer. So the singer, of course, when they produce sound, of course, they spit not because they want to, but because it’s natural, even when you talk you're doing that. So in my perception, what I can see in the future, but this is my personal point of view, opera houses will be the latest in opening because, of course, the chorus, the interaction on stage and the orchestra in the pit - in the pit you cannot just respect all the distancing. So I think that for a while, why I said we have to be creative - because maybe instead of Verdi’s Requiem, if you want to stay on the subject of the requiem, we’ll do the Fauré one or the Mozart one. For instance, I have to do all programmes, I'm imagining the programmes I will be able to conduct in the future with a maximum of 40-45 people in the orchestra. But that gives a lot of possibilities because you can do from Vivaldi to the 20th century music. For a while we have to, to not to suffer, but to perform music with a reduced number of artists, unfortunately. 

SS: Music directors, maestros, they're employed in gazillion different orchestras. I mean, when I was saying your titles, they're like, three in a row, the most obvious ones. And then there are other things as well. You're in America, you're in England, you’re music director in my native Georgia’s Tsinandali festival. You guys travel so much, you know, like your life is about being there, here, there, here. How are you going to keep that up when flights are such an iffy thing right now? 

GN: That will change. Not the fact that we reach different countries will change, but the number of flights will change. So if I go to America, I would not go to America just for two weeks and after that, travel back to Europe. Maybe I would go to America and I would stay for a complete month. And when I go to England for the London Symphony instead of doing one or two programmes, I will do two or three programmes, and all the colleagues like me, when we get to a place we will just stay longer. So to do some guest conducting would be a little bit more complicated. So the music directors will spend more time with their orchestras. We go back to that kind of idea of the 50s and 60s where the music director stayed practically all season with the orchestra, if you think Ormandy, Koussevitzky, Fritz Reiner, talking about American orchestras due the fact that I'm a music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. For instance, the first, initial last year of the Tsinandali Festival, I could just come for one week. Next season, not this one because of the pandemic, I will stay longer. I will come even before, I’ll stay a little bit longer. So what I try to avoid is just doing these bits, bits, bits. So I will do probably the same work but instead of three bits in America I’ll do one longer. And when I move to another place, I would stay longer. Probably that will also help our health, mentality, the mind, the heart... Just to take the plane less. That will not reduce our activity in terms of numbers of concerts, but in terms of movements and travel. That will change. At least this is what I imagine in my life. 

SS: Maestro, there’s a really interesting poll published by Singapore’s Sunday Times sort of making rounds all over the web right now. People were just asked to rate top essential and non-essential jobs, and artists topped the non-essential list. This is the way people feel in many places affected by the pandemic. You're saying we couldn't have survived this pandemic without the music. I agree. Why is it that in the times of risk musicians and artists are viewed as useless in society? 

GN: I think that is a very interesting topic and subject you're just raising, Sophie. I think that when there is something dangerous or perceived incredibly dangerous, and you see that this situation affects your economic system in terms of country, macro-organization, geopolitics, immediately you think you don't need books, you don't need culture, you don’t need music, you don't need even love. You have just to get the food to survive from one day to another. That is the mentality when you are in a war, when you are in a situation of danger. Actually I think this is a big misjudgement because in moments of crises, there is where the spirit needs to be fed. You have to give food, you should give food to that. That's why during this time, I discovered myself in reading more than ever. I read five important books and I’ve started the sixth one. I started The Ring by Wagner because I have to do it. Can you imagine I have my first Rheingold in the spring of 2022. I play the piano, I started to learn German, and I started to cook and to help my wife cooking. I think in difficult moments, we should think that our spiritual part, our soul needs also to receive food and not only just to get from the morning to the night and tomorrow is another day. But it's difficult to convey these ideas when everybody is really battling and fighting just to stay alive in the more tragic moments. I can understand for most parts of the population not thinking that culture or artists or literary artists or musicians, whoever, are in the top priority, but we are not useless at all. Even in this moment, we have to re-underline our duties as human beings. 

SS: As human beings, but also, can we talk about classical performers in particular because you said that all great music is composed during transitional periods of history, right? 

GN: Correct. 

SS: Like Shostakovich, Verdi, you name it, meaning that during these times composers usually try to convey some really powerful message to the public through their music. Do you feel like we're living some sort of transition now? Should we expect, I don't know, amazing creations after we come out of this? 

GN: I hope so. Also because even composers they had more free time. They had also to use the time they found in their hands. Composers, we have to remember, many of them teach, many of them go to attend their performances, and just to stay home and just to feel the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks! I'm sure also because artists in general, not because we are particularly good, but we have the possibility to see much more far ahead than the others because we touch beauty, gold, art every day. And so it's not because we are better than others but because just facing every single day the great masters and seeing how they behaved through difficult times, we can imagine what is going to happen. It's always been like that. So I think it's very important to make our voice heard thanks to the great music and we have to wait when that will be possible on a big scale. But even on a small scale, even this interview with you, come on, is fantastic. And just the fact we try to think or to imagine what is going to happen or how is the situation now, how to get out of that and what kind of activity we can imagine afterward - that is an important moment, that tells me that there’s some interest. 

SS: And talking about the level of interest and talking about the impact that we're analysing right now, do you feel like a classical performer, for instance, classical artist can have as much of an impact as a pop artist would have on population because you don't particularly hear people going around streets, you know, humming Nabucco, right like people just don't listen to Verdi in masses anymore. Do you think when we talk about the impact that a classical music, classical music artists can ever have the same level of power and impact on people's souls in our days, in our age as Verdi did in his? 

GN: If I try to remind, in the stadium, football stadium in Italy and they sing the Marche Triomphale from Aida, probably they don't know it’s from Verdi’s Aida, but they seem just to push their players to score goals. If you ask, “But what are you singing?” “I don't know. It's just that.” “Good, but it’s Verdi, Aida”. Or if I sing to a new generation [sings a piece from Rigoletto], they continue. They don't have any idea it’s Rigoletto. But somehow there is still this DNA. Of course, you cannot imagine the power and the number of viewers of the pop star. We cannot compete with that. But classical music maybe will stay for longer. What is important to underline is the fact that the important words of our lives have always been the same. You’re born, you develop, you love, you hate, you make your job, you contribute to the building of society, you get mature, you get old, and you just pass your experience to the next generation, and somehow as late as possible you will just go in the sky or somewhere else. So, all these kinds of emotions, it doesn't matter if we are in the 21st century, in the 16th century, today with the pandemic, tomorrow, all the human beings will feel the same way: to be unfaithful, to be faithful, to respect, to be joyful, to be sad, to be euphoric, to be depressed. And art, the real art is a fantastic companion in our lives because everybody felt that and the artists tried to put that on paper. And with music we don't even have words (unless we consider opera with a libretto or Latin text or whatever), but the language of emotions, that's why music, classical music, pop music, rock music will survive forever, because we will never stop to love each other or to try to get in contact with each other or sometimes to be furious and after that to calm down. But the most important thing is to try to build a new society, to build, to open. So art is a fantastic bridge. And until the moment the world is able to build up something art will be a crucial part of it. 

SS: Maestro, on this optimistic note I would like to end our wonderful conversation. It's been such a delight talking to you because I really couldn't wait to discuss all of these questions, they actually really bother me because I am the classical music consumer. So thanks a lot for giving us hope for the nearest future. Thank you for all the work that you and all of your colleagues have been doing through these really difficult times of pandemic. Thanks for keeping us sane and you stay safe. 

GN: You stay safe. Thanks, it has been lovely to talk to you and take care everybody. It's important. The future will be blooming. Ciao-ciao.  

SS: Thank you, Maestro. Bye.