Who is the hottest property in the under-30 category among UK classical musicians? Who is reckoned to be on course for certain stardom, critical acclaim and, very probably, massive demand from the international music scene? There are many candidates, but only one dead cert as far as the movers, shakers and big-time agents in the music business are concerned: Robin Ticciati, the young Londoner who is the new principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
To the SCO’s dedicated, hardcore audience on the orchestra’s winter season circuit, Ticciati is completely unknown. He has not appeared in any of the cities. He has visited none of the major venues. He doesn’t start his new post until December, so the only Scottish audiences that have seen him in action are those in the areas he visited last summer, and again recently, on small-scale Highlands tours.
Yet, for all that he will appear in December, sight unseen, to take up the reins of his new band in the Scottish cities, audiences ought to be aware of something about this young man: he has an increasingly high profile internationally, and the evidence for that lies simply in the demand for his services.
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He’s only 26, but already has well-established relationships with a clutch of the best orchestras in the world, notably
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.
He also has a track record in opera, and is music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, a post he has held for two years, with one more to go. All around him demand is on the increase from seriously big organisations. Next season he debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras, while La Scala Milan has contracted him to conduct their production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 2012.
We won’t see him in action with the SCO until the end of the year, but recently Ticciati passed through Edinburgh, so nabbing him was imperative. Arriving pretty whacked from a rehearsal with the SCO that he described as “intensive”, the loose-limbed, rather gangly and immensely engaging lad flopped relaxedly into one of the Balmoral Hotel’s most luxuriously comfortable armchairs while we waited for the desperately needed coffee that never arrived, and told his already remarkable story.
It’s a tale with a few classic strands. Ticciati has never had a formal conducting lesson. He was a violinist who switched to timpani so that he could sit at the back of the orchestra for the best view of one of his conducting heroes in action. He has been closely mentored by two of the world’s greatest conductors, Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Colin Davis, both superstars who clearly believe that Ticciati is the real McCoy.
The young Englishman is being very carefully managed by the same company that looks after Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink and John Eliot Gardiner, among other stellar figures; a company which has a reputation for nurturing the younger generation of rising
musicians. Ticciati is totally aware of the halo of commitment and support emanating from these great figures, though he is, categorically, not overawed. “I have, in Colin and Simon, these two great pillars of support, and I’m just charging up the middle, finding out who I am and what the music is.”
But is his career going too fast, too far, too soon? What of the obvious risks?
“It’s rocketing, yes, but there’s also a lot of careful planning. I don’t want to be this burnout boy with this thing that ends after five years. There is a risk that you can scale the heights too soon, if you stand in front of the Berlins, the Viennas and the Chicagos too early. I’m only 26. You have to know where the trust will be. You have to know where the orchestra will make music with you; you have to be aware that you do not know everything that the 70-year-old conductor they’ve been working with all their lives knows.”
The authoritative word in the business is that there is no risk of Ticciati being seduced by the glamour, of peaking too soon, or of being pushed too fast; but that the trajectory of his career will evolve steadily. So where and how does the SCO fit into all this? Very possibly it’s strategic. A year ago he was invited by the SCO to take three concerts with the orchestra as part of their summer tour of the Highlands. The SCO was in no rush to find a new principal conductor, but Roy McEwan, SCO chief executive, had heard the word about the young man, and decided it would be an opportunity, away from the glare of the spotlight, to try him out.
Ticciati, for his part, wasn’t even sure necessarily that he would pick up the offer of the guest summer engagement in Scotland. He had already decided to start winding down his
commitment to his Swedish orchestra in Gavle, where he had been cutting his teeth.
“I already had very strong ties with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the OAE, but my manager said: ‘Just go to Scotland; go and experience another group of players for your development and growth’.” So he went. “It was actually quite a slow beginning. And then, in these three concerts in the Highlands, it went whoosh, and suddenly this door of possibilities opened, with phrasing and colour and character and chamber music and symphonic experience.”
It had a profound effect on him, and at the end, after the Fort William concert, when all the players had driven off home and Ticciati was left alone, “tucked away in a little hotel”, he mulled over that effect. “I always remember my parents saying: ‘Those are the times when it has really meant something, when you find it difficult to leave’.”
But what he didn’t know was that the experience had a similarly profound effect on the SCO players, who made a beeline for their chief executive to let him know that they had encountered the conductor they wanted as their next boss.
“It was only about a week later that they came through to my management, who then came to me. I didn’t really take it on board; it was very surreal. I was ending the Swedish orchestra anyway, and was in no rush to find a new home. And I rather thought that my next appointment would probably be a
“And then it dawned on me that this was an incredible offer. Look at the innate classicism in this orchestra. Look at the experience they have. Look at all the people they work with, from Mackerras to Manze. And look at their strength. There’s an awareness within them all. I sense it’s an intellectual orchestra. There are thinkers here. You can sense it when they’re playing: they are thinking and they are listening; and that’s something very interesting that a conductor can tap into and work with.
“Then all these boxes in my mind started to be ticked. Here is, basically, a collection of musicians that is extraordinary. They can do everything: they can do Berlioz, they can do Ligeti and Kurtag; they can do the classics and Rameau. They can do Mahler. They’re a chameleon, and that really attracted me to it.”
And clearly, in his first season’s programmes, where the range of repertoire chosen by Ticciati for his own launch is colossally broad, he intends this characteristic of the SCO to be underlined. There will be much more of all this as winter draws in and Ticciati
heads north for his central belt debut as principal conductor, but what’s his reaction right now, and what does he want to happen as the relationship gets underway later this year?
“What’s really special is that I don’t know where this is going to lead. I know where I’d like it to travel to, what to aim for and what to go for. But I can’t see an end point, which I’m very happy about, because it’s a huge responsibility, as of now.”
And what does he want of the SCO for himself?
“I feel like I’ll want them to sculpt me. They’ll shape my response and shape my technique at the same time as I’ll be doing it with their music.”