Giovanni Antonini and Beethoven as you do not expectBy Emilia Campagna
February 22, 2023
A few days ahead of the concerts in which he will conduct Theresia (in Rovereto on February 26 and in Florence the next day), we caught up with Maestro Giovanni Antonini for an insightful chat about his musical career and his relationship with Beethoven.
Giovanni Antonini, you will conduct the orchestra in an entirely Beethoven focused programme, such an iconic composer: what is your relationship with Beethoven?
I have had an ongoing connection with Beethoven since 2005 when I started a recording project of the complete Symphonies with the Kammerorchester Basel. The project lasted 10 years, so the whole work was very thoughtful and thorough. My starting point with Beethoven was similar as Theresia Orchestra’s today: the orchestra has a very extensive experience in the classical repertoire (Haydn, Mozart, but also a lot of less familiar composers) but never approached the Beethoven Symphonies. That was the situation for me as well. From a certain point of view, it was an advantage: Beethoven is perhaps the most performed composer, and over time he has been attributed even with extramusical, often political, meanings. By coming to his music after considerable experience in the earlier repertoire, I was able to approach it with freshness and a new outlook, free of bias.
It must be said that a remarkable technical leap was taken by Beethoven: his music was extremely difficult at the time, specifically because of its technical complexity, which often had to do with the required dynamics. Beethoven was the first composer to demand such a high degree of intensity from the orchestra, which was truly unheard of in those days. Taking on Beethoven is quite a challenge and also an opportunity for both technical and musical growth.
Compared to less historically informed performance approaches, what does playing on period instruments tell us about Beethoven?
Playing Beethoven according to historically informed performance practice allows us to rediscover aspects otherwise overlooked: one of these is frailty, an aspect that is hardly associated with this composer. Beethoven is the titan, the hero, in his most stereotypical depiction. But Beethoven also has another side: he explores our human dimension, of which frailty is an important aspect. And that aspect emerges powerfully from playing on original instruments, the ones that were used in his time and for which he composed.
Because of its complexity, Beethoven’s music gave an incredible boost to the technical development of instruments. Today’s string instruments have metal strings that produce a mighty sound, or we have bright and powerful woodwinds, but at the time of the creation of this music, this was not the case. Think of the flute for example: in the 1800s it was an instrument that would express sweetness, with a soft sound: then it changes and becomes powerful, but the modern flute has very little to do with the instrument Beethoven had in mind.
You will be conducting Theresia, an important step in their professional and musical training for many members of our youth orchestra: thinking of you at that age, what were the key events or encounters at the beginning of your career?
The most important encounter was with my colleagues with whom I founded the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. Our work together has been a true musical journey: we rehearsed so much, exploring the 17th century Italian repertoire, and our joint effort paid off with great success.
As far as my role models are concerned, even though I did never had the chance to engage with them directly, I owe a great deal to both Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Franz Brüggen. Harnoncourt changed the vision of Italian Baroque music and not only: I remember for example his recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a scratchy sound that was both ancient and brand new; and then Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, where he gave great prominence to the woodwinds; on the other hand, Brüggen took the flute, which was considered a second-rate instrument, and proved to everyone that it could be a leading instrument.
How did you start conducting?
It was thanks to the work with Il Giardino Armonico: at a certain point we had the chance to perform with a larger ensemble and we needed someone to conduct, so I volunteered… and I learned to do it. It went on for years and I discovered that conducting is an expansion of musical potential: the conductor doesn’t produce any sound but builds the whole performance step by step. I had conducted Il Giardino Armonico exclusively for years, when in 1998 other orchestras started inviting me: it was the time when modern orchestras started to be interested in the historically informed practice and of course, they needed someone trained in the field.
Let’s talk about Dmitry Smirnov, the violinist who will perform as a soloist with Theresia and with whom you have already worked: what do you like about this young talent?
Smirnov is a violinist at the highest technical and musical level: a violinist of the modern school who can play anything and who, as happens to be more often the case, is also interested in performing on original instruments. He is part of a generation of musicians for whom it is not mandatory to choose between the modern instrument and the period one: indeed, as a violinist trained in the modern school, he absorbs the experience of historically informed performance like a sponge. That gives him the ability to tackle with Beethoven without adhering to stereotypical models.