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There is No Guilt in Music Conductor Carlo Goldstein in conversation with Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
Italian conductor Carlo Goldstein leads a busy lifestyle working with several orchestras and is well known worldwide. He has worked with some of the world’s leading orchestras: the BBC Philharmonic, Teatro Massimo Palermo, and the Sydney Opera, and has also been regularly invited back to South Korea to perform there. He is depicted in the press as a pilot well able to navigate the waters of complex music opuses, linking musical references and producing performances which are praised for their grace, warmth, and sensitivity. In this interview, Carlo Goldstein elaborates on his career accomplishments, aesthetic studies, and current lifestyle as a musician.
An important point in your career was winning a prestigious conducting competition in Graz, Austria, in 2009. How did that change your career and everyday life?
It was a turning point for me, as competitions sometimes are. It gave me some professional opportunities at the beginning but, more importantly, made me understand I was ready to start a career. How did you come to choose to study aesthetics? How did it influence your piano playing and conducting?
My academic studies were parallel to my musical studies. If on one side my historical and aesthetical interests were always part of my musical Bildung, I am not sure there has been a direct influence. I have a Master's degree in philosophy and that is of course part of who I am and the way I think, but music is first and foremost a practice - a practice that may open doors in many directions, possibly even philosophical ones, but it remains mainly a practice. Something one can or cannot do. The practical side of music-making is its noblest part. You were not a child prodigy and were called a “lazy student“. What is your understanding of the educational system for musicians? What changed your attitude towards music and this profession?
Let’s say I had some moments of low enthusiasm - but I also had some good moments in the end. I personally think that there is no stronger element in one education that a personal inner motivation. The most difficult thing to do in life is doing something you are not interested in. During my studies, at a certain point I understood very clearly that music was something I cared about deeply. Since that moment, problems have become opportunities and the hours at the keyboard have been the happiest ones. You lead a busy lifestyle as a musician. The quarantine must have really changed your everyday life. What are you focusing on during the lockdown? Maybe there is a repertoire you are working on?
During the lockdown, I rediscovered the pleasure of studying a musical score without a precise deadline or an immediate professional goal. It’s something I used to do as a student and many years had passed by. It has been very nice and many scores I wanted to study for a long time finally made it on my desk; some Strauss and Mahler, some Lutoslawski, Castiglioni, and an intriguing large score of Thomas Ades. How do you see the musical life of the world after the coronavirus crisis? What would you say could help the cultural sector the most during this time?
After some predictable events – various commemorations and re-start narratives – I am personally not optimistic. The only thing that can really help music and culture, in general, is interest. A personal interest in the people and public interest in the political administrations. Cultural interest and cultural awareness cannot be created in a short period nor as an emergency reaction. So probably those countries that were doing fine will keep on getting better and those that were going down with the crisis will sink faster. Were there any quarantine projects that you were a part of?
Some chatting about music or conducting on various virtual platforms. In the beginning there was also some excitement, then I got tired of it - more or less like when you taste something for the first time with curiosity but then you understand how cheap it is… There is a tendency to open the archives and look for a virtual alternative for cultural life. How do you think this enriches how people experience music? What does it take away from the music?
Archives are important. Memory is a very essential part of the culture, not only in music, yet there is no “virtual alternative” to a real artistic experience. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever be comparable to standing in front of a Caravaggio, walking through a majestic gothic cathedral or listening to a Beethoven’s Adagio. Then come words, explanations, thoughts, studies, and even archives… but first and foremost there must be a real personal artistic experience. How would you describe your lifestyle as a musician? What elements of it challenge you the most?
It’s a life of privilege and there is nothing really challenging to it. I do something I love and I keep on working on things I liked as a little boy. Therefore I never had to say goodbye to the boy in me. As an adult, I feel this as an immense privilege. You studied at the Tartini Conservatory of Trieste, International Academy of Music in Milan, the Royal College of Music in London, in St. Petersburg and the Mozarteum in Salzburg. What did you learn from your teachers? Maybe they shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?
Teaching is possibly the most important profession in the world and I am now very grateful to all my teachers. I was probably sometime not an easy student but I have learned a lot in all my experiences in Italy and abroad. The personal example is the strongest tool in teaching, so strong that it can even crush a weak student sometimes. I would say it is very important, at first, to be under the influence of a good teacher and then, later on, to find the strength to free yourself from that influence. You said that the orchestra is the culmination of music. How could you explain that and how does it make a conductor‘s job different from other musicians?
The symphonic orchestra is the greatest, richest, and most complex instrument ever conceived in history by any civilization: it is an instrument made of human beings. Tens of brains and hearts, hundreds of lungs, ears, eyes, and thousands of fingers. Different sensibilities, different personal stories, sorrows, and hopes. All this humanity gathers and pursues an invisible fil rouge written in a code on a score. It is nothing short of being an artistic miracle and as a metaphor it’s so large that it remains inconceivable even to the majority of people who are part of it. You are known as an advocate of contemporary music, playing works by contemporary Italian and international composers. What do you most value about it?
To me, contemporary music is something absolutely normal and so it should be presented to the public. Of course, specific festivals can be very nice but in general, I feel contemporary music is part of my activity like every other music and enters my programs naturally. I read and eventually conduct a piece written two hundred years ago exactly like I read and conduct a piece written last year. I don’t see any difference. Or better, many differences! But aren’t there also many differences between Bach and Strauss or between Stravinsky and Haydn? I mean, music is never a game with fixed and predictable rules. You mentioned that studying a score is a solitary moment. How do you deal with solitude in your profession?
I enjoy both the solitary moment of studying a score and the social moment of the rehearsals. They are two sides of the same coin. Actually, when I am alone in a room with a great symphonic score in front of me, I do not feel alone at all. On the other hand, being in front of an orchestra can be lonelier than most people think... In a documentary, when asked which figure of music history you would like to be, you chose Bruno Walter. Why?
Bruno Walter was a unique master; in Bernstein's words “an angel of music!”, the Mahler apostle, an unsurpassed Mozart interpreter, and then Schumann, Brahms, Strauss: basically everything he touched became gold. His presence on the podium was the definition of good leadership: firm but friendly, close to the musicians but without compromises with the composers. Inspired, yet very concrete in the rehearsals. Once you have understood Walter’s touch and his unique sensibility in phrasing you can’t help but falling in love with his musicality. Then, beside all his talents, his personal journey as an artist – from the persecutions of the Third Reich to his enormous influence on American cultural life, until his memorable comeback in Europe – marked essential stages in contemporary history. What is your daily routine? Do you have any rituals as a conductor?
When I travel, I find myself in very different situations: sometimes I study in a theatre, sometimes in a hotel room or in an airplane. It does not make a lot of difference to me. Usually, I do not need a piano. In general, the evening hours are good for analysis and the morning hours are good for memory. I am quite quick and I hate losing time. I have no rituals before concerts or while studying. What do you most value in music performance?
Sincerity is the most precious thing. Then, of course, there are many musicians who are absolutely sincere but are totally uninteresting. Ah, life is difficult! Define inspiration – does it exist? How does it manifest itself in your everyday life?
Pablo Picasso answered a similar question saying that the only thing he actually knew and cared about was: work. It’s a very true answer. I just work every day of my life with music, then if what I do appears sometimes more “inspired”, more to the point, well, I am happy about it. But it’s not something I have any control on. So I do not have any definition for inspiration, I know basically nothing about it. I feel that it has something to do with lightness and happiness: that lightness and happiness you find on top of a mountain after a climb. How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What most affects or resonates with you?
I don’t actually listen to a lot of music nowadays. I play, I read and study music a lot; I think about it the rest of the time and sometimes even write about it. I admire very many musicians and conductors of today. Often I find some interesting aspects even in performances that in general, I do not like, in interpretations far from my horizons. What is your guilty music pleasure?
There cannot be any guilt in music! And, more importantly, there should never be any guilt in pleasure! How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
I’d like at least one aspect of my personality to be evident: my curiosity and my openness to different possible horizons. I believe that only by venturing in the great sea of art without foreclosures or ideologies can we meet others and know ourselves in depth. This is the great chance that art gives us. Otherwise, we remain on our little island… Thank you for the conversation! Ona Jarmalavičiūtė