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The electric conductor

Rumour has it Robin Ticciati doesn't like interviews.

He definitely doesn’t like having his picture taken.Bringing along a photographer will, I’ve been warned, be next to impossible. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal conductor has been in Scotland two years, and though audiences seem fairly unanimous about the quality of his musicianship, many still don’t have a sense of who he is off the podium.

He’s a musicians’ musician, championed by other conductors and players he works with. Despite being young, good looking and the most successful British conductor of his generation – a fact recently confirmed by his appointment as Glyndebourne’s next music director – he’s avoided becoming a PR phenomenon. He keeps his private life, well, private. Most comments pertaining to his image simply note his cork-screw mop looks quite like Simon Rattle’s.

He does (eventually) agree to photographs. And, by making the interview as unlike an interview as possible, his meandering conversation turns out to be generous, genuine and candid. It’s mid-August, a couple of days before his superb Edinburgh International Festival performance of Duruflé’s Requiem with the SCO. I’d snuck into their morning rehearsal at the Edinburgh Academy Junior School on the north side of the city to watch how he works with the orchestra: a lot of laughing all around, a lot of singing from Ticciati as he demonstrates ideas. He finishes early and spends a good 20 minutes chatting with the musicians as they pack away their instruments.

We’ve been designated a conference room but he heartily objects: too much like an interview. “Let’s go into the sunshine!” he suggests – he speaks with the kind of wide-eyed ardency that calls for exclamations marks – and we wander out to a bench at the edge of a playing field. We blether about bicycles and pubs in London and the wasp that stung his finger during the rehearsal. He periodically checks the damage. “What a baby I am! It’s just a sting!”

Before I get around to official questions, he pre-empts with his own train of thought: “I just love making music with this orchestra.” Since he took up with the SCO in 2009 there’s been much talk of the special chemistry of their relationship. He blushes at the mention of it: “I mean, we don’t talk about the chemistry … From my perspective, maybe it’s enough to say that they care for music. It isn’t a job for them. As a conductor, they make me smile. Maybe they can feel that.”

He lists specific qualities to do with former conductors and an obsession with proper phrase lengths. They look for things that other orchestras don’t, he says, and their core repertoire – late baroque, classical and early romantic – means they’ve honed a refined and energetic sound that applies to whatever they play. “Berlioz, for example!” Berlioz is one of Ticciati’s favourites and features in the upcoming SCO season. The composer’s scores, he says, are “full of love and imagination, nature and colour, all without censor. He was completely nuts! But nuts with such an intellect. Some people claim his writing isn’t sophisticated. But he’s so playful. Once you find a way of enjoying the quirks, you gain entry into an amazing sensory world.”

The season opens with the SCO’s first-ever performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, a piece designed for a much larger orchestra. “But imagine the beginning of the Rêveries,” he says. The first movement sets the scene of the fantasy in pianissimo woodwind triplets and tiny, breath-like phrases from muted violins. “Those details get swamped by big ensembles, but the SCO can zoom the microscope right in. The possibility!”

Ticciati often repeats phrases two or three times, not for pompous effect but as if he’s weighing up what’s been said. Nearly everything we cover strikes him as exciting: the buildings in Edinburgh, the prospect of rehearsing with the choir that night, even the academic task of learning new scores, which takes up a major proportion of his life. “The more scores I learn, the more I love the learning.”

He explains the process: he’ll start by reading a score like a book. “It’ll be by my bedside or I’ll take it to a café.” He looks at how the piece is built, focusing in until he’s spending days on the first six bars. Sometimes he bashes out bits on the piano (very badly, he claims) but mostly he hears the music in his head.

And he doesn’t listen to the music he’s learning. Only after a year or so might he seek out recordings, plural. Tellingly, the conductors he most often turns to – Furtwängler, Kleiber, Walter, Sawallisch – are all long dead. “There’s a magic to older generations who weren’t tainted by the modern hype of perfection,” he says. “Sure, music needs to be accurate. But if your soul and thought process are right, things like intonation and ens emble will follow. These things should never be the starting point.”

He hasn’t done much recording himself yet, but that is about to change, with much of the SCO’s Berlioz season lined up for the studio. “My job will be the same as it would be in a concert – I think … There’s probably a different mindset to recording but it’ll be a lifetime of working that out.”

By “lifetime” he means a good 50 years to come. Ticciati is 28. As with any high-profile young performer, concerns have been voiced from various corners of the music industry: is it too much too soon to take on Glyndebourne, the and a growing international diary? Will he lose track of the music?

I’d hazard a guess to say he won’t. He doesn’t seem easily distracted. Every tangent in his conversation soon returns to music – not a defensive thing, more plain reflection of his natural frame of reference. When asked about pressures at Glyndebourne, he answers by explaining what it’s like to conduct singers.

“I increasingly hear music with the voice,” he says, “but you also have to remember that instruments are instruments. For example, at the end of rehearsal just now I asked the horn player, Alec, to play more like a singer. I even asked him to use vibrato – a horribly crass suggestion! Alec rightly didn’t use vibrato, but he did do something different that made the sound really blossom.

“That’s a problem with being a conductor. Sometimes you try to show an idea with a gesture and nothing happens, so you have to resort to words. You can say louder, shorter, softer, harder – instructions that work 99% of the time. Then there’s that 1% that needs a different set of images.”

He talks about tricks he uses in rehearsal: say this word and a player will respond like that; make this kind of gesture and the orchestra’s sound changes accordingly. For most conductors these tricks are accumulated, trial-and-error, after years in the business. Ticciati appears to know them intuitively.

“It’s all psychology,” he shrugs. “I try to see the person who’s in front of me. I sense what they will respond to and I give it to them – or not, if I want to challenge them.” His mother is a psychologist and he acknowledges the intuition has rubbed off. He says the key to rehearsing is listening, or as he calls it, receiving. “If you start a rehearsal with ideas that are too rigid then you can’t receive,” he says. In a business famous for egos and divas, the humble approach is fairly radical.

“But look,” he continues. “The main thing is that the music is greater than us all. You need the conviction that you would move 10,000 boulders to do it right – but the humility to admit that once you had moved them, you might still be wrong. Does that make sense?” Yes, it makes sense. “Because that is so very, very important.” And there’s no danger of forgetting that humility, no matter how many accolades he earns? “People can say what they like – people do say what they like. The music reminds me not to get above myself. The next score is waiting on the bedside table, staring at me like a terrifying stranger.”

I’m still a little confused by his reluctance to be interviewed and photographed. “Alright,” he says, “I try not to be affected by what people say, but of course there are moments. And I hate what I look like.” He prods at his wasp sting. “However, I can’t expect classical music to survive unless we all shout it from the rooftops. To do that I have to engage with media. But no, I don’t like it.”

For the first time the conversation feels like an interview. He changes the subject. “[Czech conductor] Jirí Belohlávek once said something that stuck with me: ‘Mothers don’t sing to their children any more’. I feel so grateful that I woke up to a piano in the living room and Radio 3 on in the kitchen. But it brings problems too, that privileged upbringing. I’ve never had to struggle. There are certain muscles in my body that I’ve never had to flex.”

That may be, but he seems pretty balanced to me. He says life is exciting because people are passionate about things, anything, not only music. “If it were only music I’d have nothing to communicate in my conducting. Everything contributes: looking at paintings, eating the most incredible food, eating the most God-awful food.”

He looks out across the playing field, up to Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands, and apologises for not having seen more of Scotland yet. “I haven’t spent a month in a little cabin in the hills and smoked my own kippers and lived off bread and red wine.” Nor have most of us, I nearly point out, but don’t want to spoil the image.

After the Duruflé, before start of season, Ticciati is on holiday. “Nearly a month off! I’m going to stop for a bit. This job requires a phenomenal amount of frenetic energy. On holiday I can spend 20 minutes just making a cup of tea. The days become a little stiller. Conducting a piece like this Duruflé, you’ve got to have a working knowledge of what it is to be peaceful. But after that, it’s back to learning new scores …”

On that note, he heads off for an afternoon swim before evening rehearsals. I cycle up the hill along the same route as he drives, and at each set of traffic lights he leans out of his window, shouting cheerful encouragement.

Robin Ticciati conducts the SCO’s 2011/2012 season opening concert on October 6 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and October 7 at City Halls, Glasgow; www.sco.org.uk

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