Robin Ticciati: the 28-year-old who makes top-rank conducting look so easy
02 April 2012
We're used to prodigies in classical music.
Hardly a month goes by without another wunderkind pianist or violinist appearing
on the scene. But wunderkind conductors are a different proposition.
It's not just their own arms and fingers they have to control, it's a
roomful of seasoned and probably sceptical professionals, many of whom will be
old enough to be their father, or even grandfather.
Only a youngster with huge natural authority could take on such a task, and
it's clearly a quality Robin Ticciati, who is 28, has in abundance.
He got his first professional date aged 19 while still a student at
Cambridge, and a year later became the youngest conductor ever to appear at La
Scala Milan. At the age of 22, he became musical director of Glyndebourne on
Tour (he's taking over as director of the main house in two years' time). Since
then he's risen to the top of the game with amazing speed. He has a list of
guest appearances at top-rank orchestras and opera houses that a 50-year-old
would envy, but what claims most of his energy is the musical directorship of
the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, that he's held since 2009.
So what's Ticciati's secret? I'm expecting a combination of the steely
decisiveness of Pitt the Younger and the unchallengeable gravitas of Herbert
von Karajan. What actually greets me at the restaurant in Glasgow is a slender, tousled-haired faun
with a slow, wide smile and the look of someone who's always gazing into far
distances. As we sit and Ticciati gazes indecisively at the menu, savouring
every choice (he's a man who likes to savour things slowly), he tells me how it
"I can remember the exact moment when I realised what a fabulous thing
it would be to conduct. I was a 13 at the time, playing in the National Youth
Orchestra - I started on the violin but switched to percussion because I liked
the idea of playing the one thing that really stood out - and we were working
on Sibelius's First Symphony. We'd been rehearsing it for a week and we all
thought we knew it. Then Sir Colin Davis came in. I remember we all stood for
him, which really impressed me and seemed absolutely right. He explained to us
how we had to enjoy the journey, and imagine that we were telling a kind of
story to the audience in sound. Suddenly, I felt as if I didn't know the piece
at all, and had to start again. I remember thinking: 'That's what I want to do,
I want to mould that story from up there!' "
When did he get his chance? "At school. My music teacher conducted a choir,
and I asked if could take over for a rehearsal. He told me I could take over
for a whole term, plan the concert programme, basically do everything. It was
an incredible experience." "Incredible" is Ticciati's favourite word, but it
never sounds like a cliché when he uses it. It's a genuine expression of
incredulous delight at the mysterious and bewitching aspects of the world,
What makes those things bewitching is the fact they're just out of reach - a
melancholy awareness reflected in the way Ticciati's words often peter out in a
sigh and a shake of the head. The surprising thing is that, rather than leading
to indecisiveness, it gives him an unusual kind of certainty (in music if not
He may not be able to grasp this mysterious something, but he knows exactly
in which direction it lies, and he'll keep refining and refining the sound
until he gets as close to it as is humanly possible.
Doing that needs technique, and yet Ticciati has never formally studied
conducting. "I never wanted to do that thing of looking in the mirror and
practising the exact moves to conduct in 7/8 time. For me it all has to come
out of the piece. Take the downbeat that begins the Beethoven 1st piano
concerto we're doing tonight. What's the right gesture to get the right weight
of that sound? What's the speed of the upbeat? Is it the same as the first
note, or do I just give them a breath? Questions like this are never-ending."
That search for the elusive right sound is what's brought him back to
Berlioz for his first CD with the SCO.
"I'd done his Symphonie Fantastique quite a few times, but I hadn't said
quite what I wanted to say. I thought I could get closer with a chamber
orchestra, because after all the second movement is a waltz on a Mozartean
scale. And in the first and third movements there's a special kind of grace, to
do with the uplift on the quaver upbeats, which I could never get with big
orchestras. But I thought with these players I could." And even if he hasn't,
he'll have got a step closer. With Ticciati it's the journey that matters.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's recording of works by Berlioz
conducted by Robin Ticciati is released on Linn later this month
Robin TicciatiScottish Chamber OrchestraBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique