At first glance the American tour of the brand new Symphonica Toscanini appears to be simply a large-scale homage to the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). Marking the 50th anniversary of Toscanini’s death, the orchestra, created in the spring of 2006, follows the trajectory of orchestral tours Toscanini led across America in 1920 and 1950.
The instrumentalists are seasoned professionals who played together under Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, in the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, which was founded in 2002. Their decision to form a permanent organization led to the creation of Symphonica Toscanini and to Maazel’s appointment as its “conductor for life.” Its repertoire consists of pieces associated with Toscanini. The new orchestra has planned 60 concerts for 2007, including performances of all nine Beethoven Symphonies and of Verdi’s “Requiem” in Italy.
On Sunday, January 14, Maazel leads Symphonica Toscanini in a performance of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner at New Brunswick’s State Theater. Two days later, on the precise anniversary of Toscanini’s demise, the tour reaches what the presenters label its high point, with Maazel conducting a joint concert of Symphonica Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, featuring soprano Renee Fleming, at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.
Arguably, focusing on Toscanini and his repertoire looks backward. However, the orchestra is studded with enough paradoxes and coincidences to make it as much a curiosity as an exercise in hero worship.
But first, some evidence of links showing that Maazel is uniquely qualified to carry on Toscanini’s tradition. Let’s start with the New York Philharmonic: Toscanini conducted the orchestra from 1928 to 1936; Maazel has been its music director since 2002. Both men have had distinguished careers both in symphonic music and in opera. Their instrumental training is in string instruments; Maazel, violin, and Toscanini, cello.
Precocity is a characteristic they share. Toscanini entered the Parma Conservatory at age 9 and won honors as the outstanding graduate in his class at age 18. Immediately engaged as a cellist for the Italian Opera in Rio de Janeiro, he took over for the regular conductor in “Aida,” who was hissed off the podium. Toscanini was then engaged to lead the orchestra for the rest of the season. At age 31 he became the principal conductor of La Scala in Milan.
Maazel was fascinated by conducting and by age eight conducted the University of Idaho orchestra in a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in Los Angeles. At age 11 he conducted Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra and at age 12 he led an entire program with the New York Philharmonic. Now 75, he seems to be a rival for the longevity that marked the conducting career of Toscanini, who reluctantly retired at age 85.
Now, on to quirkier matters. Although Maazel has been named conductor of Symphonica Toscanini for life, the 200 young musicians, mostly Italian, who comprise the orchestra, have no guarantee of permanent engagement. At any given concert 120 of them, chosen by Maazel, perform. Pia Locatelli, president of the orchestra, helps explain in a telephone interview from her home in Bergamo. “This model is a testament to their belief in their own professional skills,” she says.
Symphonica Toscanini has a motto: “Musica Economica Emozioni” (“Music, Economy, Emotions”). Locatelli reveals that the word “economica,” here, means “business.” “The foundation that manages Symphonica Toscanini bases its work on a true market philosophy,” she says. “The idea is not so new for the USA, but it’s new for Italy. In Italy artistic groups are normally supported by the government. With Symphonica Toscanini we have great music allied with economics. We have major support from Mapei, an international firm that produces building materials. It has a close relation to the cultural world. Mapei supports La Scala [the Milan opera house] and was involved in restoring the Sistine Chapel and other historical buildings. They gave us money and have the right to sit on the board for a year.
“The Mapei brand is present in each activity of the year. It will be there throughout the American tour. Mapei has the right to attend concerts, and to invite guests. It’s a sort of advertisement.”
Speaking in New York to a group of supporters in November, Locatelli vividly stressed the market philosophy of the orchestra. “Symphonica Toscanini is a private organization that is financed through the sale of its product — concerts, of course — and of its tradition.”
Born in 1949 in Bergamo, Italy, Locatelli was the 8th of 12 children. The town is important in Italy’s history, and in Toscanini’s life. Bergamo became known as the town of the thousand because 1,000 soldiers who fought with Garibaldi for Italy’s unification came from Bergamo. One of those 1,000 was Toscanini’s father.
“Music was a dimension in my family,” Locatelli says. “I have 29 nieces and nephews. With such a quantity of people, some of them were bound to be musicians. One of the cellists in Symphonica Toscanini is my nephew.”
Locatelli says she studied violin as a teenager, “but not in a successful way. I had so many interests. I chose to be a sportswoman. I was a fast runner and an amateur long jumper. I skipped violin lessons to go to sports. My father was not happy.”
Locatelli earned degrees in languages and in economics. She taught English language and literature from 1973 to 1982. From 1990 to 1995 she was the leader of the Socialist Group on the Bergamo municipal council. From 1992 to 2001 she was active in a family textile company. Presently, she is a member of the Italian Socialist Group in the European Parliament, where her assignments include looking into women’s issues. As a member of the UN Commission on the status of women, she comes to New York each year and makes what she calls a “private pilgrimage” to the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company where, because of unregulated labor practices, almost 100 women lost their lives in a fire in 1911.
Locatelli established the A.J. Zaninoni Foundation in memory of her husband, a textile entrepreneur, who died at the age of 54 in 1996. Its mission is to promote ethical labor and business practices. “He was fond of his job,” Locatelli says. “He worried that people were losing a culture of labor and a sense of fulfillment in their work. He was devoted to training people from the lowest job to the highest.” Zaninoni helped establish the Textile Engineering course at the University of Bergamo.
The openness that she shared with her husband played a role in Locatelli’s willingness to give Symphonica Toscanini a high priority in her life. “When I was asked to support this new experiment, I found it so interesting for an Italian experience. I involved my friends. I was convincing and found myself in the end elected president. It came from my passion for music. I was fascinated by the enthusiasm and commitment of the musicians. I told them that when I retire, music will be my main activity.”
Locatelli moves comfortably between a generous philosophy of equality and a belief in hard-nosed business enterprise. Her Promotional Committee for Symphonica Toscanini includes a larger than average representation of socialists, greens, and humanitarians. I ask her how she reconciles the free market outlook of the orchestra with her socialist commitments. “By chance some of us are social democrats,” she says. “But there’s no doctrinal interference in Symphonica Toscanini. There’s no aim to support the poor or make concerts available for the underprivileged. Socialists are my world. It was easiest to choose Symphonica Toscanini supporters from among those of my friends who are fond of music.
‘I feel the strongest solidarity with the artists in Symphonica Toscanini and with Maazel for their ability to take a risk and launch themselves on the market without the parachute of public support,” Locatelli says. “That’s not easily found in Italy. I didn’t ask my fellow socialists to approve of the organization. I have an entrepreneurial background, and I just did it.”
Women play an important part on the Promotional Committee and in the orchestra. Seven of 12 members of the committee are women. “That the women are there is not by chance,” Locatelli says. “It’s my personal commitment. Women are not given enough of a chance in the world. Normally men are overwhelming. You have to pay special attention to have a balance. I hate to see men overwhelming women, and I chose women who would not overwhelm men.”
The concertmaster of the orchestra, Lorenza Borrani, is a woman. Borrani, 26, is a prize-winning chamber performer, who has appeared on three continents. She played with the Albany (New York) Symphony in September. The principal chair of the second violin section, Tiziana Tentoni, is a woman. “Tiziana is a great artist and great leader,” Locatelli says. “That’s why the musicians chose her to represent the orchestra on the board.”
The governing board for Symphonica Toscanini consists of five members at the moment. Its maximum size may not exceed 21. In general, a substantial contribution guarantees a company a seat on the board. “There is no fixed sum for membership on the board,” Locatelli says. “We evaluate on a case-by-case basis. At the moment Mapei is the most significant corporate supporter and Adriana Spazzoli, the wife of Giorgio Squinzi, Mapei’s CEO, is on the board.” One expects that the board will grow.
Pia Locatelli seems to have the imagination and flexibility to steer the organization well as it adds corporate sponsors and new board members. If Symphonica Toscanini’s musical interpretations are as fresh as Locatelli’s interpretations of institutional behavior its concerts will bring an uncommon vigor to the repertoire associated with its namesake.
Symphonica Toscanini, Sunday, January 14, 3 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. “In the Footsteps of Toscanini: Symphony of the Air” tour includes works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. Led by Lorin Maazel. $45 to $75. 732-246-7469.