Adding philosophy to the change

Feature "Last year, when the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra (GPO) welcomed Massimo Zanetti as its first foreign artistic director, expectations regarding the chemistry between the new Maestro and his orchestra were high." Lee Mi-RaCOVER STORY/ AUDITORIUM magazine
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Last year, when the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra (GPO) welcomed Massimo Zanetti as its first foreign artistic director, expectations regarding the chemistry between the new Maestro and his orchestra were high. A year and two months after the first encounter between Zanetti and the GPO, his vision seems certain. With the recent extension of his two-year term, Zanetti and the GPO will be together until August 2022. With the extra time and the clarity of their goals, it seems that this will be a season of further consolidation for the GPO.

We use this expression when we see something that’s incredibly attractive. “There is someone who has never seen it, but there is no one who has seen it only once.” I’m beginning to look forward to the next performance of the GPO. The orchestra performs authentic, classical repertoire with a large orchestra of 106 members, It was founded in 1997 – making it 22-years-old this year. In the last few years, the orchestra expanded the scope of its performable repertoire to include the larger works of post-romanticism, including Mahler and Bruckner, as well as holding special events. Maestro Zanetti’s predecessor, Sung Si-Yeon was the first female chief conductor of a national/public symphony orchestra in Korea. Massimo Zanetti, GPO’s sixth chief conductor, is now solidifying the orchestra’s reputation and position.

On October 14, I met Massimo Zanetti, who had just finished the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra’s master series concert and was preparing to conduct Don Giovanni, which will be performed with the Seoul Metropolitan Opera in November. It has been already a year with the GPO. He still seems to be in the excitement of Honeymoon-phase with the orchestra.

Time to grow up again

The Italian conductor, Massimo Zanetti, is the first foreign music director to work with the GPO since its formation. In March last year, the GPO introduced Masimo Zanetti as its new artistic director, saying, “We needed an excellent conductor with an international reach that will allow us to grow globally.” Maestro Zanetti then added “I visited Asia to conduct the NHK Symphony and the China Philharmonic Orchestra, but I didn’t know much about this Korean orchestra because I was more focused on the activities in Europe at the time. But when I heard that Ricardo Muti, known for his pickiness, had come to work with the orchestra twice, I was surprised and wondered why. The first time he may have come out of curiosity regarding a young orchestra, but the second time it must have been because he felt something special about it.” His curiosity later blossomed into conviction as he listened to the live performance of Jaap van Zweden and the GPO.

“I thought I should not just force my idea, but move together, step by step, towards a state in which we (conductor and orchestra) understand one another and want to make further progress together. To respect each other and move in one direction; this has been the primary focus of our dialogue and work together over the past year.”

“I was surprised at the musical ability and flexibility of the GPO. After I listened to their performance, I looked forward to our time together. From the time I first saw the GPO perform in March, until the time I took up my position as conductor in September seemed too long for me to have to wait. During that time, I visualized what I wanted to achieve with the orchestra until I was able to meet them again. It was as if I had been shown a nice Ferrari but was not allowed to touch it.”

After only twenty-two years, the GPO is still young. Much like the orchestra itself, its members are also young. But despite its short history, the orchestra has grown into one of the representative orchestras of Korea along with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) and the KBS Symphony Orchestra. Critics say that the meeting between Zanetti and the GPO came at the right time for the orchestra which had already experienced five chief conductors and performed under the baton of world-class conductors such as Ricardo Muti, Jaap van Zweden, and Pinchas Zukerman. And now, it seems Massimo Zanetti and the GPO are a match made in heaven; He, a world-class conductor with the passion and experience to nurture and guide them, and the GPO, an orchestra dreaming of making the leap onto the international stage.

Creating own language

When it came to 100 days after the inauguration of the artistic director of the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, he described the past 100 days as a honeymoon and said that things could not be any better. But a year later, he is still in that honeymoon-phase.

He refers to the orchestra members as his kids and the relationship between Maestro and players has become a very deep and close one. “At home or on a plane, I often read music scores that I play with the GPO, and each time, the faces of the members come to mind. I can see, in my mind, the facial expressions and the eyes of each player and how they would react to the flow of music. The members of the orchestra also seem to understand my thoughts just by looking at my eyes, facial expressions, and gestures. The members, many of whom were initially nervous to even exchange greetings with me, now they look at me with smiles even during performances.”

“The smile means that we understand each other’s music and have both been given exactly what we want. We have become one. This constant rapport we share is what makes the music we create so special. When I first came to work the GPO, despite the fact that it was a wonderfully talented orchestra, I missed the eye-contact and rapport with the players who seemed shy to engage on that level. Now, that has changed.”

Because differences in culture, background, and language exists, it would be impossible to work together without a relationship of trust and an effective means of communication between the players and conductor.

“A smile on stage is a sign that I am with you,” says Zanetti who maintains that the word sharing holds within it the secret to solving any possible difficulties that might arise.

“The GPO was not an orchestra that I had to teach: basically, they already had a high standard, so what I was looking for was more depth in the musical approach, in order to further develop their interpretation. In that regard, I thought I should not just force my ideas, but take steps in mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect so that we can move forward as one – and that is the way we’ve walked together over the past year.” Zanetti also compared the relationship between the orchestra and the conductor that of lovers; one that is dependent on the chemistry flowing between the two parties. “My first goal was to create a musical language that worked between me and the members. A year later, I think the members of the orchestra are already reading my intentions in my eyes. They can see the smallest detail right away. I have worked with the Berlin Staatskapelle for a long time, we can communicate with each other through our eyes in an effortless way. I feel the same in the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m very happy that we created our own language.”

Opera and Symphony, based on abundant breathing

Massimo Zanetti, the youngest of two sons and four daughters, was born in Milan, Italy. He has been surrounded by music ever since he was born. In Zanetti’s house, with his Grandfather, an opera lover, and a family of classical music lovers, music flowed from an LP-player every day. His musical talent grew from a very young age. When he was four years old, even though he could not read music nor play piano, he sat at the piano and played what he heard. He wept over Mahler’s music on the radio. His dream to be a conductor began at the age of six after being taken by his older sister to see Claudio Abbado perform with La Scala Orchestra for the first time in his life.

“The music played by the orchestra as they followed the conductor’s movements felt like magic. Since then, my instrument has been an orchestra, and I’ve always dreamed of being a conductor,” said Zanetti.

Zanetti went on to study piano, composition and conducting at the Milan Conservatory. After graduating from school, he immediately began entering competitions. In 1991, he won the Vienna Competition and met Abbado. “A few of the fundamental turning points in my music life are, firstly, when I won the Vienna Competition and met Claudio Abbado. Next would be the performance with the best orchestras, among them, my time with the Staatskapelle in Berlin is special. Finally, the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra! It is a very important encounter for me.”

Opera is a must in the career of a world-class conductor and Zanetti also conducted a number of operas beginning as the music director of the Flemish Opera, he performed La Bohéme, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Le Nozze di Figaro, Simon Boccanegra, among others. Recently Zanetti presented Don Pasquale with the National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra in Beijing, and he is also regularly invited to Zurich Opera and at Bavarian State Opera. In 2008, he contributed to a DVD recording of Verdi’s complete works with Rigoletto, and in 2010 and 2013 he released an album of Verdi’s I vespri siciliani and Simon Boccanegra. Last year, at the helm of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, he contributed to an album of works by Verdi sung by the Bulgarian soprano, Sonya Yoncheva.

Zanetti’s musical color, which was built through the opera, is also demonstrated in the orchestra. He continues to perform regularly with the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Czech Philharmonic, the Weimar Staatskapelle, and is continuously invited to work with major orchestras from around the world, including the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra and the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Fruit to bear together

Massimo Zanetti came up with various ideas when he was appointed as artistic director. One was to showcase a variety of repertoire spanning different eras, from the classical to the late romantic period, 20th century and contemporary music. The other was to show orchestral performances that introduce opera forms.

“I played almost all Brahms repertoire in a year. In one and a half years, we will have presented the entire Brahms repertoire and 80 percent of Beethoven’s symphonies. Isn’t that good going?” He also emphasizes the repertoire of 18th-century German-Austrian classicism.

Mozart was also in the program that he chose during his first performance with the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra.

“When I first met the orchestra, I felt there were very few pieces in their repertoire by Mozart or Beethoven. In preparation for the Mozart program, members were asked to reduce their vibrato to a minimum. Perhaps it was unfamiliar to the members who were used to producing rich sounds. But I emphasized that this method can be used not only in Mozart but also in Brahms and Beethoven. This is also the most transparent way to access the music. There are certain melodic lines, relationships with other parts, and relationships between notes, which can be heard when you play without vibrato. If you repeat this process, all musical dynamics and languages will become clear. If people keep yelling at each other, they won’t hear anyone else.”

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which will be performed by the GPO with the Seoul Metropolitan Opera in November is also in line with the goal of expanding the repertoire.

“Don Giovanni Mozart’s masterpiece. Don Quixote would have survived by virtue of the character himself without R. Strauss, but without Mozart, Don Giovanni couldn’t be a charming character. Mozart portrayed this character – who was a Casanova-type and a murderer – as a free and responsible character to the world. In this work, beauty and tragic sadness coexist from the beginning to the last moment. It was due to Mozart’s unique genius that he could understand the character. I think this is a great opportunity for the GPO to grow further.” The collaboration between Seoul Metropolitan Opera and Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra has continued. Faust, der Freischütz, and recently Werther were also performed with the GPO. But what makes this stage so special is that it is a performance with a chief conductor who is experienced in opera. I asked if I could see more opera performances by Zanetti and the GPO.

“Any time when it has the right content for the right time. But I will only play with the GPO. When I was artistic director at the Flemish Opera, Abbado suggested that I help him develop the major works he performed for three years until 2002. At that time, Abbado presented the opera Simon Boccanegra with three different orchestras, the most memorable performance was with the Berlin Philharmonic. I sat in the auditorium and watched the rehearsal, and as soon as the orchestra started playing the first bar, I was in tears. It was like opening a window to another world. The Berlin Philharmonic plays one opera every year, and the opera they perform is very special. Because they bring all their knowledge gained by playing symphonies to the opera.”

There are not many opportunities to encounter opera performances by major Korean orchestras. Could Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra fill this need?

“There are not many orchestras that play in both styles of symphony and opera. To have access to both styles makes one able to have different levels of expression. There seems to be no opera orchestra in the Korean system but every time you perform an opera, you have to hire an orchestra. I think this is an opportunity for the GPO.”

The weight worthy of carrying

Critics and audiences have recently begun to show a noticeably increased response to the GPO. Ticket sales have not only increased but also accelerated. The GPO’s performance at the Symphony Festival in April this year sold out. Zanetti often sends messages through the GPO’s YouTube channel ahead of regular performances. It is an effort to build a stronger connection to the audience while elevating their experience of the performance.

“I think there is always a part of anything that can be improved, it is the same in public relations. I think the audience will come to us as much as we make the effort to reach out to them.”

During the interview he repeatedly emphasized the word “sympathy”. “The greatest value you feel as a conductor or the value of music is in the word sympathy. Communicating with the orchestra is also important. The performance can vary depending on the atmosphere influenced by the audience that day. You have to think about what to deliver from the moment you step on the stage until you step down. I hope the people who visit the concerts have something to keep in mind when they go home, something that blooms from within to enrich their lives. This is what I want to do and what I hope for. ”

Collaboration with young players is also a way for the GPO to enact its sympathy. “The energy of young musicians is amazing. This year alone, I was able to meet very talented musicians. Gyeonggi Philharmonic has many roles and responsibilities as a public orchestra. One of them is to help young and talented musicians in Korea to grow. Another important activity is to deliver music to isolated areas. Playing music in the places where it is hard to find classical music is also an important mission for us. Last April, we participated in a performance held in Ansan city for the fifth anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking. We played “Im Wasser” by Korean composer, Lee Eun-Sun. We felt very emotional and it was deeply meaningful for us. I was very proud and grateful to be able to participate in this meaningful event. ”

Zanetti just signed a two-year extension with the GPO a few days ago. “Now that I have more time, I’m going to try to reach different goals with the orchestra. After covering the Brahms repertoire, I want to play all the Schumann symphonies. We will work on increasing our Mozart repertoire, and Mahler’s symphonies will be performed every year. I also plan to continue the Beethoven cycle, and my final goal is to play all the Beethoven symphonies in a week at the end of my term.”