In the limelight

Massimiliano Caldi talks to LUXOS about his life as an international orchestra conductor


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12 April 2013

"The travelling is tough, with the infinite sadness saying goodbye when I leave home, and all those mornings waking up alone in a hotel room. But the reward comes with the adrenalin rush on the night."

Not an athlete or a rock star, but an orchestra conductor, Massimiliano Caldi, whose career has taken him all over the world. Currently principal conductor of the Danzig Philharmonic Orchestra, he began working in his native Milan, to where he returns periodically from far-flung cities. We had the chance of talking to him in his studio in Milan, a brick-vaulted office looking onto one of the city's delightful hidden gardens. The walls are lined with books and scores; there are some display cabinets packed with model cars.

For people outside the world of music, thinking of a conductor conjurs up images of taking bows on a podium, amidst waves of applause. But there is much more, and it's not always like that.

"Of course the applause at the end is gratifying both for me and the orchestra. But sometimes, people have different opinions, and I remember on one occasion, after a rapturous ovation for a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in Sala Verdi, Milan, an elderly lady made her way to my dressing room afterwards and told me in no uncertain terms that she didn't like it. But that's alright. It's better getting a real reaction, whether good or bad, rather than indifference. Carlo Maria Giulini once said that if listeners say a piece is 'interesting,' there''s something wrong. Music should be good, sometimes heartily disliked, but not 'interesting'... it's like when they say of a woman, she's got lovely hair... you know there's something wrong..."

Could you tell us about your typical day?

"There are two types. On a normal day, rehearsals with the orchestra in the morning, perhaps right through to the early afternoon, with a quick break for a snack. If the production is an opera, rehearsals are later, with the singers. But usually rehearsals end at about three, and, if I'm in Danzig, where I am principal conductor, I work on performance planning and other admin. If I'm elsewhere, I switch on the computer, and catch up with the mail. I spend the rest of the day studying for upcoming concerts. There's a lot to do: this year, from January to May, I'm working on 14 programmes with 8 different orchestras."

Everything changes if it's a performance day?

"That's right. In the morning or early afternoon, there is a general rehearsal. If it's an opera, the general rehearsal is like a performance: you can't stop. You have to go right through from start to end. After the general rehearsal I try to rest, have another look at the score, perhaps pack my luggage if the taxi leaves early the next morning. Then a shower and shave, I put on the tails, and leave for the concert hall."

Do you follow any particular rituals?

"No, not really, at least not before the concert. After, yes; I always go out to a restaurant to celebrate after the performance. Perhaps with the concert hall manager or someone else, but I'm usually on my own. And then, back in the hotel, there is that moment of truth, when you ask yourself, how did it really go? That's a tough one. In front of the audience, you have to pretend that everything was fine, even though you know that there was a part that didn't turn out as you wanted."

As the conductor, do you have to deal with problems at a human level... jealousies and conflicts inside an orchestra?

"In theory it should be the general manager who does that, but very often, he is the cause of tension. Sometimes, musicians come to me and say, maestro, why did you change the time of the general rehearsal, perhaps the strings wanted the new time, but the woodwind are very unhappy about it... and of course it's not my job to organize times and so forth, but very often I have to sort this sort of thing out."

And the baton, that object that defines the conductor and his role. Do you have a favourite baton?

"Yes, I've found one that I always use, it's a question of weight... but actually, you can conduct fine without. With the baton, you usually use the right hand to mark time, the left for expression, but without, your hands are freer. Sometimes at a certain point in the performance, I put the baton down and carry on just with my hands, and there is a sort of rustle of approval from the audience, and they think that this is a really poetic part of the music, then after a bit I pick it up again... but in actual fact, it's just cramp!"

On the night, what is it that transforms a perfect performance into a work of art? Or it the art already in the score?

"No, no, that's precisely the musician's role. Just as the art of a painting requires someone to look at it, and a poem needs someone to read it, the art of music is created by the people playing it. Often, scores are cryptic; Mozart doesn't give you many indications, just piano, forte, allegro... so the conductor has to provide indications on interpretation. Just before a performance, I think of the places where I can give more space to the orchestra, surprising the musicians, and as a result, the audience as well."

Are there jokes about viola players everywhere? (*Scroll down for a few viola jokes).

Yes, all over the world. Violas are often thought of as just a filler between the violins and the cellos and basses... but actually, if you try to bring them out, so that their melodies become significant and not just extra harmony, you get good results, and they play better. Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is virtually a symphony for violas and orchestra, and a lot of Tchaikovsky is the same."

Maestro, you spend a lot of time travelling. I suppose that your nearest and dearest have had to get used to this?

"It's strange, there's always the sadness on departure but my wife is a bit cross when I return... perhaps it's like cats, who turn their nose up when you return home after a trip and they're miffed because you've been away. After a bit, when you return you begin to feel like an intruder.”

Are there conductors who have been points of reference for you?

Oh yes, of course. Riccardo Muti: whenever I have a problem with an orchestra, I ask myself how he would approach it. Conductors of the past, Toscanini and Karajan, who were the first to give the profession characteristics of modernity; they were the first to be managers as well as conductors, dealing with lights, furnishings and so forth."

When did you first realize that your vocation was for conducting?

"I studied piano, playing solo and in chamber ensembles, and I gradually realized that I had the right sort of ear to listen to the other instruments. So I bought some orchestral scores, and began to follow them during concerts, and that was it... I was in love!"

Are there any pieces that give you a special emotion?

"Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. Verdi’s special sound that I have to recreate. Beethoven, the Pastorale, the Fourth Symphony..."

Maestro, on the subject of your personal preferences, could you tell us about the cafés and restaurants that you particularly like in and around Milan?

"Well, in Milan, there is Di' Vino Bacco, a restaurant in Viale Premuda. I love breakfast at Cucchi, on Corso Genova, and at Taveggia. The Camparino bar in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele makes the best coffee in Milan. Bar Basso is great for a club sandwich on Saturday afternoon, and for aperitifs. I like pizza, and I often go to Portobello on Via Plinio, or Da Rita & Antonio in Teatro Dal Verme, the real Neapolitan pizza, small, high and soft. Devero is simply the best restaurant in Lombardy. I like Chinese and Japanese, so I love Mandarin 2 in Via Garofalo. Memo in Via Monte Ortigara is a venue that presents live jazz every evening. Lastly, Gran Galeone in Via Fiamma, not so much for its cuisine but because it's open until 2 a.m., and so I often see other musicians there."

Maestro, I know that as well as model cars, you collect vintage cars. Where would you go for a spin near Milan?

"The pontoon bridge at Bereguardo is a beautiful location, out of this world, above all in winter. Aperitifs in the piazza on the lakeside in Como, or Lecco, or on lake Orta, in the piazza facing the Isle of San Giulio. At Gudo Visconti, there is a superb restaurant, immersed in the fog. Spectacular place."

In the photo above, Massimiliano Caldi in his vintage Fiat Multipla

For further information on Massimiliano Caldi and his work, click here to see his website

 Massimiliano Caldi's eating and drinking recommendations

Caffé & cornetto:

Pasticceria Cucchi
Corso Genova 1, 20123 Milano
Tel. +39 02 8940 9793

Via Uberto Visconti Di Modrone 2, 20122 Milan
Tel. +39 02 7628 0856, +39 331 5065 861

Camparino in Galleria
Piazza Duomo 21, 20121 Milan
Tel. +39 02 8646 4435

Aperitifs and club sandwich:

Bar Basso
Via Plinio 39, 20129 Milan
Tel. +39 02 2940 0580


Via Plinio 29, 20129 Milan
Tel. +39 02 2951 3306

Da Rita & Antonio
Via Puccini 2/a, 20121 Milan
Tel. +39 02 875 579


Restaurant Di Vino Bacco
Viale Premuda 46, 20129 Milan
Tel. +39 02 799 691

Via Garofalo 22/a, 20133 Milan
Tel. +39 02 2664 147

Memo Restaurant Music Club
Via Monte Ortigara 30, 201 Milan
Tel. +39 02 5401 9856
The best restaurant for listening to live music while enjoying great food.

Ristorante pizzeria Gran Galeone
Via Fiamma 31, 20129 Milan
Tel. +39 02 7384 898
Useful because it is open until 2.00 a.m.

Outside Milan:

Ristorante Devero
Largo Kennedy 1, 20040 Cavenago di Brianza
Tel. +39 02 9533 5268

Il Visconte
Cascina Longoli, Gudo Visconti (near Milano)
Tel. +39 02 9494 0266