FOR generations of Americans, Arturo Toscanini was the greatest conductor of their time, perhaps of all time. He set new performance standards and enforced a style of following a score as literally and faithfully as possible, an approach that still draws adherents. Though his star has dimmed since his death in 1957, the Italian conductor still ranks among the top in the field.
Dedicated to his ideals and repertory, the new Rome-based Symphonica Toscanini, composed of young, mostly Italian musicians and led for life by New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel, is making its first U.S. tour this month.
On Tuesday, the orchestra will give a joint concert with the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the 50th anniversary to the day of Toscanini’s death. As part of the tour, the orchestra will stop in Costa Mesa on Jan. 25 and 26 for different programs sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
The orchestra has gotten great press in its home country. “Too perfect to be real,” wrote La Provincia di Como. “Everything is appealingly beautiful, fresh and endowed with superior texture.”
“One is struck by their sense of belonging,” wrote Il Giornale, “by their discipline and generosity in giving the best of themselves.”
“Maestro Maazel said each one of them could be a soloist,” said Pia Elda Locatelli, president of the orchestra’s sponsoring organization, the Symphonica Toscanini Foundation based in Parma, the conductor’s birthplace.
“But don’t call them a youth orchestra,” she cautioned. “They are young, but they are all professionals. Most of them are between 20 and 30.”
The group is unique in Italy because it’s privately funded rather than underwritten by the state. That’s what interested Locatelli, a member of the European Parliament and part of its commission on the rights of women and equal opportunities.
“From the very beginning, I supported it because this private enterprise dimension fascinated me,” said Locatelli, speaking from Bergamo, Italy. “I used to be an entrepreneur before becoming a member of the European parliament. I found it fascinating that this would be a private artistic enterprise. But I couldn’t understand how they were really going to launch this challenge.”
Neither could Maria Chiara Raggi, the orchestra’s principal harpist.
“Suddenly from Italy arrived a phone call asking me to play in this new Italian orchestra,” Raggi said from her home in Munich, where she’s lived for 12 years, playing in the Bavarian State Orchestra. “I was very surprised. I thought, finally Italy is able to create something new. It’s not always La Scala, Santa Cecilia. In Italy, there are wonderful orchestras. But I was very surprised. Suddenly it was creating a new one.”
But she didn’t expect much to happen.
“At the beginning, I thought it would be one concert and it would fold. Suddenly I was really surprised, wow, this is something else. There is financial backing, and there is a structure, and there is not just idealism and ‘we would like to do this and this.’ No, they did it. That was very big surprise.”
But the orchestra had a base. It grew out of the former Arturo Toscanini Orchestra, founded in 1975 and conducted by Lorin Maazel since 2004. Last May, the musicians voted to rename it the Symphonica Toscanini and Maazel became its permanent head.
The budget for the year is now about $10 million, a combination of earned income and individual and corporate sponsors (Italian defense group Finmeccanica is underwriting the current tour). The plan is to give 60 concerts this year. In addition to performances in 12 U.S. cities, the orchestra will play in Japan, Israel, Europe and Morocco.
“Funding is very secure at this time,” Maazel wrote The Times in an e-mail from Rome, where he was rehearsing the orchestra for the tour. “Our goal is to strive for a level of performance excellence that would justify the inclusion of the awesome Maestro’s name. Dedication to excellence, willingness to work the extra hour (or day/s) to achieve our goal, total emotional commitment to the task at hand, these attributes characterize the orchestra’s approach. I attempt to second their efforts and add what I can to their contribution.”
Another distinguishing aspect of the group is that unlike other Italian and European orchestras, whose members remain secure essentially for life, Symphonica Toscanini draws on a roster of 200 freelance musicians, which keeps them on their toes and dedicated to the job.
“Each musician enjoys a solo contract so that we are not bound by work regulations laid down by others,” Maazel wrote. “Like all free-standing professionals, we rehearse as long as is necessary (or as little!).”
The musicians say they like the arrangement.
“That’s something really new in Italy,” said Raggi. “That’s an incredible change in the mentality. Every concert, every tour, you have to be very, very good, because this orchestra, if you are not at the level, you are very quickly replaced. In Europe, if you get into an orchestra, you remain in it. This, to my mind is really very bad. With Symphonica Toscanini, I can hear a very big difference, the enthusiasm, the passion of the musicians. They want to make music. This works for me. There is very great emotion in the playing.”
Tiziana Tentoni, the orchestra’s principal second violinist, agreed.
“It’s stimulating,” she said, speaking from Rome. “We take our destiny in our hands. If you play well, if you are a really good orchestra and if you are well managed, you can have money. There is nothing given for granted. We have to show that we are good so we have something back.”
The band was built upon the name of the man who was the most renowned conductor of his time. Toscanini’s rise to stardom is the stuff of movies. A 19-year-old cellist playing in a performance of Verdi’s “Aida” in Buenos Aires in 1886, he took over after the conductor was booed off the podium. He was so successful, he went on to lead the rest of the season as well, and after returning to Italy, his career swiftly rose. Blessed with a photographic memory, he would have made his mark in history simply by giving the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (1892) and three Puccini operas -- “La Boheme” (1896), “La fanciulla del West” (1910) and “Turandot” (1926).
But he also became a symbol for freedom and democracy. He feuded with Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, and although he was the first non-German to conduct at Wagner’s shrine in Bayreuth, Germany, he refused to conduct there -- and at Salzburg -- after the Nazis came to power. In deep antipathy to Nazi persecution of the Jews, he went to Tel Aviv in 1936 to lead the inaugural performance of the Palestine Symphony -- the forerunner of the Israel Philharmonic.
In addition to tenures at La Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the New York Philharmonic, he led the NBC Orchestra, which was formed especially for him, from 1937 until 1954. He died in New York three years later.
For Tentoni, Toscanini remains “our symbol.”
“He’s responsible for the good technique of all orchestras today,” she said. “He was very severe, but he really wanted the orchestra to respect the score, to practice and study and to give great dignity to the job. We really try to do all these things. It’s very difficult, but for us, it’s a mission.”
Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 25 and 26 (different programs)
Price: $25 to $200
Contact: (949) 553-2422 or
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Conductor connects with a kindred spirit
IN Arturo Toscanini’s literal interpretation of a score, the renowned conductor was usually regarded as the polar opposite of his contemporary, German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who took a subjective approach -- trying to get “behind” the notes to the original impulse that created them.
New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel, also conductor of Italy’s new Symphonica Toscanini, was keenly aware of their differences.
“I was very influenced by Furtwangler, whom I heard live in Rome with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1953,” Maazel wrote from Rome in an e-mail to The Times. “The breadth of his phrasing, the long, vibrant stretch of his interpretative vision I found mesmerizing.
“Toscanini’s purism went against my grain in certain repertoire (Berlioz), but we must nevertheless have been cut out of the same cloth: In 2004 I conducted ‘Traviata’ to reopen the Fenice theater. After the dress rehearsal, someone played me a tape of a Toscanini performance saying it was my own (I had never heard a note of a Toscanini ‘Traviata’ recording). So identical were details of phrasing, tempi, balances, etc., that for minutes I thought I really was listening to my own performance!”