LUCERNE, Switzerland — The Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has a reputation, in America, as an also-ran. Over the years his name surfaced as a likely candidate in music director searches for the great orchestras of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. He got none. But he hasn't done so badly in Europe. He now heads the world's most famous opera company, La Scala in Milan, and over the weekend he began his tenure as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, one of the most prestigious posts in the symphonic world.
Are we missing something?
The emphatic one-word answer after hearing Chailly's tremendous performance Saturday night of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the opening program of the Lucerne Festival, is: yes.
This was such a commanding performance of the score known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" — requiring a massive orchestra, doubly massive chorus and eighth vocal soloists — that no defense of Chailly should seem necessary. Yet it does represent an extraordinary arrival for a conductor who has struggled through much of his career to be taken seriously as a substantial musician.
Trained as an opera conductor — he was assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala — Chailly got one of his first big breaks when he made his U.S. orchestral debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1980. He was 26. Hyped as the next young sensation, he had just signed a record contract, and his first major release was of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with the L.A. Phil.
Things didn't go well. The players weren't impressed. Management wasn't impressed. The reviews were not nice. The recording was canceled, and Chailly has not been back, except with touring orchestras.
Still, Chailly quickly rose through the ranks of Europe's opera houses and orchestras, and just eight years later he became the surprise music director appointment of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. There was grumbling, particularly among the more conservative Dutch players and their sophisticated audience, that Chailly was a lightweight. Nevertheless, he remained for 16 years in Holland, where he matured and made some beautiful Mahler recordings. His most important achievement was to move a stodgy orchestra into the 20th century with more modern music than it clearly wanted. The course was reversed when he left.
His next unlikely move was to the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra. With this, the world's oldest orchestra, Chailly turned to Germany's holiest of holy, the three Bs. He made a series of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms recordings that mixed a modern, clear-eyed freshness with a clear-eared regard for classical tradition. Many of his former critics were astonished by the sheer vitality of the music making, and the CDs piled up awards year after year.
Finally Chailly has returned a celebrated master to his hometown, Milan, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Abbado. The prospect is that La Scala will once more become the excitingly progressive company it was in the 1970s under Abbado.
Chailly also follows Abbado to Lucerne. In 2003, Abbado created the current incarnation of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra by personally selecting players from top European orchestra players, who come together for a few intensive weeks here each summer. Abbado focused most of his attention on this ensemble in the last years of his life. His valedictory Mahler recordings in Lucerne provide a profound summation of a great career. But Abbado, who died in 2014, never got around to the Eighth in Lucerne.
Chailly thus dedicated his performance of the symphony to Abbado. There were video cameras and microphones to capture it for posterity Saturday night, the second of two performances The vocal soloists were very fine, and the choruses, which included the exceptional Latvian Radio Choir, were magnificent.
The ensemble totaled 358, crammed onto the stage of the lovely lakeside KKL Lucerne Concert Hall, with its transparently forthright acoustics by Russell Johnson (not unlike the late acoustician's design for the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa). This is a modest if not atypical number for the Eighth. (Gustavo Dudamel exceeded 1,000 when he performed it in 2012 in the Shrine Auditorium.)
Chailly began modestly for a great Eighth, resisting using the opening blast of orchestra, chorus and organ to pin listeners to their seats. Rather, the gracious conductor seemed to offer a hearty, but hardly overpowering, welcome, readying us for swelling climaxes to follow.
The first movement is a glorious hymn, and those climaxes gradually grew in intensity. Each appeared to push the hall to its sonic limits, yet the next proved even louder and more thrilling. Throughout, though, instrumental details remained wonderfully tactile. Mahler uses four harps, and each could be distinguished.
The long second part of the symphony turns, almost operatically, to the final part of Goethe's "Faust," an increasingly ecstatic heavenly ascent. For this, Chailly created a vivid orchestral atmosphere and generated dramatically committed performances from all his soloists, with standouts being soprano Juliane Banse, alto Sara Mingardo and baritone Peter Mattei.
With a mystical chorus at the end, Goethe calls for the "Eternal Feminine" spirit to lead us to indescribably high reaches, and Chailly did, making the towering Alps that surround this scenic city seem stunted in comparison with this vision.
There was some symbolism to that. The theme of this year's festival is "Prima Donna," a recognition of the contemporary role of female conductors and composers. Few of these women would be news to Angelinos. L.A. Phil associate conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla is one obvious name. The festival ends next month with Messiaen's symphonic ode to love, erotic and otherwise, the "Turangalila" Symphony, with Dudamel conducting his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.
These pages have chronicled L.A.'s history of women in classical music for more than a century. We're on top of that. But our history with Chailly is another matter. We were too quick to write him off.