Saturday 15 December 2018

Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio

Damian Iorio
Damian Iorio
Damian Iorio will be conducting Welsh National Opera's revival of Dominic Cooke's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute during February and May this year; this will be Damian's debut with the company. He is also music director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, an ensemble with which it turns out he has strong family links. I spoke to Damian recently via Skype to find out more.

The Magic Flute is one of those operas which can be read many ways, and Damian sees it as multi-layered, with fun yet an element of seriousness so that those who wish to delve can do so. Damian's preparatory reading has suggested a number of different angles. But he is very aware that he is conducting a revival, and this affects how he approaches the piece as he does not want to weaken a production which is already there.

He has conducted more new productions than revivals, but he points out that even in a new production a conductor is not entirely in control and they will be working with the director so that ideas flow between the two. The challenge of a revival is to make the performance strong. Both situations require flexibility and being open-minded, and Damian loves being challenged.
'such a complex opera, that no definitive answer about it is possible'
Damian sees The Magic Flute as such a complex opera, that no definitive answer about it is possible. And with a revival, certain questions will have been discussed in the original production and answered from a certain point of view, and Damian needs to understand this.

This Damian's debut with Welsh National Opera and he is looking forward to it. So far, his career has been split between the opera house and the concert hall, and he enjoys making music in both. Whilst there are differences between the two, Damian thinks that it is all music and he needs to be true to both himself and to the composer, to express, listen and feel. He tends to do one or two opera productions per year and feels that he has been very lucky. His previous opera productions have included Boris Godounov in Paris, Mahagonny in Sweden, and Falstaff with Helikon Opera in Moscow, and in Siberia.

Mozart: The Magic Flute - Dominic Cooke's production at WNO (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart: The Magic Flute - Dominic Cooke's production at WNO (Photo Robert Workman)
Damian has been music director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra (MKCO) since 2014 but his connection with the orchestra, in fact, goes back 40 years and is very much a family one as his parents were part of the orchestra from its founding in 1975.

Damian comes from a highly musical family. His grandfather was Australian, came to the UK and became a well-known viola player, playing with The Halle and in the RAF during the war (in fact, he played at the Potsdam Conference). All three of Damian's grandfather's children became musicians, including Damian's mother who led MKCO until two years ago and she is still teaching. His father is also a violin player, his brother an opera director.

The orchestra came about because the Milton Keynes Corporation wanted to invest in the cultural life of the city, and this is still very important. The orchestra is made up of professional freelance players, though many have links to the area. Damian very much enjoys conducting the ensemble and is now in his fifth season.
'his connection with the orchestra goes back 40 years and is very much a family one'
In his period with the orchestra, he has seen some changes. Whilst the orchestra remains freelance, Damian is keen to make the identity of the players closer to Milton Keynes. And he has brought in major soloists to play with the orchestra (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Craig Ogden and Stephen Hough as soloists in the 2018/19 season.). He feels that the quality of the artistic offering is good, but with any new orchestra, things are complicated as it has to appeal to so many.

The audiences tend to be quite mixed, so Damian has to understand which programmes work best and of course, there is the constant pressure to sell tickets. Yet he wants to challenge the public as well as giving them what they want. Damian feels that in the UK, the orchestras and ensembles outside of London are very good at challenging their audiences in comparison to other countries. But it is important to understand the audience as well as challenging them, and Damian's job is to lead everyone, both orchestra and the public. He has started introducing programmes from the stage, bringing new light on existing repertoire as well as helping with unfamiliar pieces.

Damian Iorio and Milton Keynes City Orchestra
Damian Iorio and Milton Keynes City Orchestra
Despite coming from such a musical family, his becoming a professional performer was not something that his parents insisted upon, instead, they ensured that he had a choice.  There were the usual arguments when he was in his teens, and his determination to work in music wobbled a bit. But he realised that he wanted to take his violin playing further and studied at the RNCM. Whilst there he also expressed interest in conducting and his conducting teacher there was very generous with his time, bearing mind that Damian was, in fact, a violin student.

Whilst at the RNCM he did amateur and unofficial conducting gigs. It was attending a masterclass given by the great conducting pedagogue Ilya Musin which really blew him away. And then Damian spent a year in the USA studying the violin with Franco Gulli, who was a great old-school violinist, yet someone who also played Bach with a sense of authenticity. It was Gulli who opened the young Damian's eyes in a profound way to the idea of being a musician, rather than just a violinist.

He thought that conducting was a way to further his development, but he had no money so he got a violinist job in Denmark and studied in Moscow once a month! He went on to win the second prize in the Leeds Conducting Competition and started doing a mixture of violin playing and conducting. Whilst playing the violin, he worked with a number of major conductors, such as Kurt Sanderling, whilst also still studying conducting. And then he jumped, moving to just conducting jobs; it was a risky move but was the right decision.
'he knows what it is like to sit at the back of the violins and that he knows the repertoire from within'
This career path has meant that Damian came into conducting much later than many, but he feels that this was a good thing, that he had a career in music before he became a conductor. So that he knows what it is like to sit at the back of the violins and that he knows the repertoire from within.

When I ask about his conducting heroes, he admits that this is difficult as he looked up to different conductors for different things. Whilst he was in St Petersburg he experienced playing under Temirkanov and Gergiev, whilst his uncle had worked a lot with Claudio Abbado with the London Symphony Orchestra. As a violinist, Damian found Kurt Sanderling as scary as anything to work with, yet when Damian approached him he was personally generous and gentle, lending Damian his conducting score to copy the markings. Marek Janowski was another conductor whom it was interesting to work with, whilst Vladimir Jurowski has become a friend yet is someone Damian regards as a great conductor with great vision.

But his influences are not just from conductors, and he refers back to his violin teacher Franco Gulli, and also his first violin teacher, Sheila Nelson, with whom he studied for most of his childhood and whom he regards as a remarkable person.

Welsh National Opera's revival of Dominic Cooke's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute opens on 15 February 2019 at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, and tours to Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Bristol, Llandudno and Southampton, conducted by Damian Iorio with Ben Johnson, Anita Watson, James Platt, Samantha Hay/Caroline Wettergreen, Mark Stone/Gareth Brynmor John -  full details from Welsh National Opera website.

Damian Iorio on disc:
  • Ildebrando Pizzetti: Symphony in A, Harp Concerto - Margherita Bassani, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale delle Re, Damian Iorio, Naxos - Available from Amazon
  • Alberto Casella: Triple Concerto, Giorgio Federico Ghedini: Concerto dell'albatro - Emanuela Piemonti, Paolo Ghidoni, Pietro Bosna, Carlo Doglioni Majer, Orchestra I Pomerigi Musicali, Damian Iorio, Naxos - Available from Amazon

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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