Making Great Strides: An Interview with Marcello Di Lisa of Concerto de’ Cavalieri
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Written by Christopher Brodersen   
Monday, 29 July 2013

Making Great Strides: An Interview with Marcello Di Lisa of Concerto de’ Cavalieri

Following their latest release on the Sony label, a two-CD set of string serenades and divertimentos of Mozart, I had the pleasure of chatting via the Internet with the group’s enterprising young director, Marcello Di Lisa. This is actually the third time Fanfare has interviewed Di Lisa, which must be some sort of record. In 35:1 (September/October 2011) I interviewed him for the first time following the release of a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CD of Scarlatti opera arias with mezzo Daniela Barcellona. Then in Fanfare 36: 3 (January/February 2012), Bertil van Boer interviewed Di Lisa a second time; the subject was the release of a DHM CD of Pergolesi sinfonias and arias, also with Barcellona.

Q: Your latest release on the Sony label, string serenades of Mozart, takes you in quite a different direction from your previous CDs. What prompted you to explore this repertoire?

A: The decision to record this particular repertoire was well considered and intentional. Like many other period-instrument ensembles, at first we devoted ourselves exclusively to the Italian Baroque. But our purpose has always been to progress through the various historical periods, all the way into the early Classical and Romantic eras, which will entail forming an orchestra able to perform the European symphonic repertoire at least up to the early 19th century. This recording of Mozart’s string serenades and divertimentos is therefore a first step towards that goal and will inevitably influence our concert repertoire as well, both vocal and instrumental. Also, our Sony Classical project on 18th century Italian opera is proceeding in a similar manner: After the Alessandro Scarlatti, Pergolesi, and Vivaldi albums—the latter is due to be released shortly—we plan to record a generous selection of late 18th-century operatic and symphonic works, and Mozart will certainly be one of the main focuses of our activities.

Q: Ah, so we might see a Mozart opera or two in the near future from Concerto de’ Cavalieri? One of the da Ponte operas, perhaps?

A: Yes, this is exactly what I have in mind. A kind of Mozartean “road-map” will guide us to Mozart’s late operatic works, and the final destination on this journey is Don Giovanni —more than any other work, it arouses my deepest interest and passion. It would be a high point in our progression through the classical and romantic repertoire which as I said, represents one of the main goals for Concerto de’ Cavalieri.

Q. Any plans to do an actual stage production of Don Giovanni, or would this be strictly a concert version?

A. Well, a stage production of Don Giovanni, followed by a recording, is certainly on my agenda, and I hope that the direction taken by Concerto de’ Cavalieri will bring us to such a project in the near future. Although we have yet to perform it, Don Giovanni is an example of the kind of music that excites me the most. It represents an extraordinary aesthetic crossroads, at the same time combining the rhetoric of tradition with an order that is thoroughly modern in form and concept. The work is definitely open to multiple, equally valid interpretations. And that is exactly what I look for in my musical activity.

Q: I’ve always found Da Ponte’s storylines and subject matter—for example, his anti-feminine bias in Così fan tutte —to be intriguing and somewhat controversial. Do you think his librettos are relevant to today’s audiences?

A: Absolutely relevant! Unlike many other operatic librettos—often made by not so talented writers—Da Ponte’s texts are phenomenal both for the refinement of the writing and for the subtlety of the man. I think these qualities make them absolutely suitable for today’s audiences, even more than other celebrated operatic works, for instance, the numerous librettos of Metastasio. When you listen to one of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, at the same time you enjoy a piece of high literature, and you smile intelligently at witticisms that in any other context wouldn’t be half as funny, for example, Don Alfonso’s “pearls of wisdom” or Leporello’s jokes. These are gags and one-liners worthy of the best comic tradition that, especially in the case of Don Giovanni , reveal a modern philosophical sensibility leavened with a substantial dose of irony.

Q: What is your feeling regarding traditional vs. modern-day staging of 18th-century opera? Would you put Don Giovanni, say, in a business suit?

A: In my opinion all staging techniques are possible, provided they are critically coherent. However, non-derivative approaches are definitely closer to my sensibility, as they aim to transfigure the meanings of a theatrical text. They place its concept in the foreground, so to speak, and not its object. I’m thinking of Robert Wilson’s productions or, even though from a different slant, of those by Graham Vick, not to mention others. So yes, I would put Don Giovanni in a business suit, rather than in lace and silk stockings! But I willingly leave the task to professionals who with their experience are much better suited at creating appropriate aesthetics for a contemporary operatic production.

Q: Fair enough. It occurs to me that the logical next operatic step for you, especially as a native-born Italian, would be the world of bel canto: Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Practically an undiscovered territory for period-instrument orchestras, wouldn’t you say?

A: Yes indeed—apart from a pioneering Norma directed by Fabio Biondi some years ago and a few other recordings, there haven’t been a lot. And it would be extremely interesting, I think, to systematically explore the potential of historically informed performance practice in this repertoire. On the other hand—despite our Italian opera project for Sony Classical to which I will be devoting myself in the near future—I wouldn’t like Concerto de’ Cavalieri to become a full-time opera orchestra.

Q: I wouldn’t, either. Perhaps the limiting factor in performing bel canto opera these days is the singers. Performers such as Cecilia Bartoli don’t exactly grow on trees.

A: Well, I definitely agree with you that Cecilia Bartoli is a special case, so I wouldn’t consider her a yardstick for the current state of bel canto performance. Besides, traditional opera productions still have many great voices to draw upon—to name but three, Daniela Barcellona, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, and Juan Diego Flórez. As for opera and period instruments, as you say this particular repertoire is almost an undiscovered territory and the situation is quite different. But this is probably due to a vicious circle.

Q: Getting back to your new CD, your performance of the ultra-familiar Eine kleine Nachtmusik was quite iconoclastic, one might even say a bit unsettling, as if you were trying to sever any connection the piece has with “Old Vienna.” The first thing that jumps out is the use of a fortepiano—for most listeners, not an instrument normally associated with a serenade, but I liked what it added to the ensemble.

A: I’m aware that many will be somewhat shocked by this album, in particular by our performance of Eine kleine Nachtmusik . Besides, you’ve guessed my primary intention: to cut off the ties with the traditional way of playing this serenade, and in general to rethink all these pieces by putting them—if you allow me to borrow your previous image—“in a business suit” rather than in silk stockings. It was in fact a critical experiment consistent with my general interpretive criteria that I intentionally wanted to test on such a famous repertoire, in spite of the potential risks.

Regarding then your remark about the use of a fortepiano in the recording, as Professor Cliff Eisen wrote in the booklet introduction, divertimentos, quintets, and similar pieces from the second half of the 18th century were musical forms that could be performed either in an orchestral or chamber setting. Therefore the choice to enrich the thorough bass by using a fortepiano, a period guitar, and, last but not least, a double bass—all in the context of real parts—is a way of intentionally side stepping the question of “gender uncertainty,” a way of enhancing the dual nature of this music that, as Eisen says, falls between two stools, the sturdy orchestral and the transparently chamber.

Q: This brings to mind a fascinating interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt that I saw recently. In it he explained how, during his orchestral days in the Vienna Symphony under Dr. Karl Böhm, he once played the Mozart G-Minor Symphony, K 550. When the audience heard the famous opening theme—da-da-dah—da-da-dah—da-da-dah-DAH—they all started smiling and swaying in unison. Harnoncourt thought it looked as if someone had stuck a “chocolate bon-bon in their mouths.” He was flabbergasted at this, saying, “how can anybody listen to this piece of Todesmusik with a smile on their face?” Although Eine kleine Nachtmusik is certainly far removed from the world of the G-Minor Symphony, I imagine you’re of a similar mind set as Harnoncourt; you want to cleanse the public’s ears of such associations, maybe shake them up a bit.

A: It is very significant to me that you mention Harnoncourt, because he represents one of my main critical references and has been for me since the beginning a refined and insightful model of musical interpretation. One of his many merits, maybe one of the most important, has been to have understood the necessity to completely change the point of view and the aims of the interpreter—and this during the time when Karajan and Böhm literally ruled the musical world. But now, almost 50 years later, in my opinion it’s undeniable that many characteristics of the then revolutionary “historically informed” movement have somewhat crystallized, and also that a great part of the audience still have the epoch-making renditions of the ’50s and the ’60s as their main reference. Hence, I think that new interpretative approaches are even more necessary today, more in line with contemporary critical models and more consonant with the rhythms of modernity.

Q: How do you feel, for example, about critics like Richard Taruskin, who has long been critical of the period-instrument movement? Basically Taruskin says that historically informed performance can never achieve the goal of an “authentic” re-creation, i.e., how the music sounded when it was first written. He says that HIP is not old at all, but in fact the most modern of all the interpretative styles before the public. Given your dislike for silk stockings, maybe you go along with what he says?

A: Of course I do not dislike silk stockings in themselves, but I’m quite puzzled that one can make the claim, in the 21st century, to be able to perform music as if we still wore them. This is in my opinion as far removed from being a sound philological approach as it gets, since philology doesn’t deal with “re-creating” the past, but with a critical investigation of the ways in which the past has come down to us. Therefore, to perform in a historically informed manner means, as Harnoncourt himself said in more than one interview, to perform philologically without forgetting that we do it for an audience alive today and not three centuries ago—for an audience, I would add, who has experienced Mahler and Stockhausen, Heidegger and Gadamer, but also Mondrian and Warhol. On this basis, the concept of “authentic re-creation” in my opinion doesn’t have much to do with modernity or, even less, with contemporaneity. At the same time, I’m convinced that authentic re-creation and historically informed performance are not one and the same thing, and shouldn’t be lumped together.

Q: Your choice of the word “philology” is interesting, since Harnoncourt and others have said that music of the 18th century and earlier is rhetoric-based, and that in order to interpret it correctly we must engage in a kind of conversation with the audience.

A: In my opinion, rhetoric is the element that makes the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries so fascinating for those interpreters who are interested in getting beyond the merely emotive aspects of the music. On the other hand, the aware listener knows that emotion doesn’t just come out by magic from the music, but it is intentionally provoked by its composer because he is able to use the rhetorical devices at his disposal—Handel, for example, is an insuperable master in this art. In this sense, I think, the interpreter is an intermediary between the music and the audience, as Harnoncourt says, and the more he can manage this sort of “conversation,” the better he is as an interpreter of this particular repertoire. But he necessarily needs philological knowledge to decode these cultural treasures that have come to us from the ancients.

Q: For some reason that brings to mind another useful word which echoes the idea of a conversation: what the Germans call Unterhaltungsmusik . Nowadays the word means “light entertainment” or “background music,” although your way of presenting Mozart’s string serenades goes far beyond that.

A: I’m conscious of the fact that a large part of the audience still sees music as a personal entertainment and is undeniably confirmed in this opinion by the centuries-old tradition of, as you said, Unterhaltungsmusik , or the various kinds of musiques de table . At least until the 18th century, music mainly had this function. But from the 19th century onwards things have changed radically for art and the artist, so I think it is nowadays aesthetically consistent to perform music that was originally conceived as “light entertainment”—Mozart’s string serenades, for example—in a much more “engaged” fashion. Of course I’m happy if someone enjoys listening to my recordings or my concerts, but certainly my main purpose is not to entertain people, but to offer my own personal view of the music. And that’s exactly what I had in mind to do when I recorded these incredibly famous pieces.

Q: You mentioned that you want to constitute a period orchestra capable of recording 18th- and early 19th-century symphonic repertoire. Any specific plans in this area, say Haydn or Mozart?

A: Mozart will be the focus of this activity plan, but starting from Mozart I’d like to look backwards and forwards: backwards certainly to Haydn—in particular to the Mannheimer Haydn who I think is so much more interesting—and consequently to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, another composer I admire most for his unusually modern style. Then forwards to Beethoven of course, but also to Hummel and to Schubert and—why not?—to Rossini.

Q:Excellent—Emanuel Bach and Rossini are certainly two composers who have not received their fair share of attention from period-instrument groups. Hummel has hardly been touched at all.

Have you ever given any thought to guest conducting, say the London period-instrument orchestras? There are some excellent period orchestras in North America that I’m sure would be glad to see you on the podium.

A: Well, I would certainly welcome the opportunity to explore the symphonic repertoire, and I’ve actually received some invitations from concert societies in Europe, even though at the moment it’s mostly for baroque projects. Of course an experience with one of the remarkable North American period orchestras would be extremely fascinating to me.

Q: It sounds like you and Concerto de’ Cavalieri have some exciting things in store for the future. Congratulations on your new release on the Sony label, and thanks for the opportunity to chat.

A: Thank you as well.

MOZART Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K 525. Divertimento in D, K 136. Divertimento in B♭, K 137. Divertimento in F, K 138. Serenata Notturna, K 239. String Quintet in B♭, K 174 Marcello Di Lisa (fp, cond); Concerto de’ Cavalieri SONY 88765417272 (2 CDs: 112:09)


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )