At a mere 31 years old—practically an infant in classical music years—British conductor Robin Ticciati is already a major maestro. He made his La Scala debut at 22, making him the youngest conductor ever to grace the podium at the world’s most famous opera house. Two years later he was named principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and he is now the musical director at the UK’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Though notoriously media-shy, Ticciati allowed violinist and writer Clemency Burton-Hill to shadow him over a period of months, through meals, conversations and conducting engagements. The resulting More Intelligent Life profile provides a vivid window into his life and work.
How does a man who has already found so much success find new ways to engage classic material? It seems Ticciati isn’t afraid of doing a little detective work:
He now strives to engage both head and heart. “I might read a symphony score for the first time and read it like a novel, and get awash with feelings. And then I might look at it going, ‘hmm, so there it goes to the supertonic, he’s used that inversion to get to there, there’s a three-bar phrase, there’s a seven-bar phrase…’” A lover of words, he often tackles an opera text first. “I might have a month of reading the libretto, without even the notes, and then gradually I’ll put it all together.” Contemporary music is another story. “I probably won’t do a Schenkerian analysis [of the structure],” he laughs. “I’ll probably just look at it and go, ‘how the hell am I going to beat this?’ Every departure point is always different, so every process is always different.”
What is consistent is his desire to be “investigative”, going to primary sources—letters, biographical material, contemporary theorists, “quite academic stuff, but one sentence can make you go, ‘God, maybe those ten bars could be done like that!’ Or there’ll be a throwaway moment in a letter, like [the violinist Joseph] Joachim just happening to mention to Schumann, ‘you know, I’ve been really playing at the tip a lot today, and it’s created this effect, like snowflakes’.” Ticciati’s melodious voice drops, as it often does, to an awed near-whisper. “One line, from one little letter that you don’t even need to share with anyone, can colour an entire movement of a symphony when you conduct it.”
It is this detail, he says as his pigeon arrives, that enables him to “go beyond painting in primary colours”. The next stage is the essence of conducting: how to convey his interpretation to the musicians who actually make the noise? “That’s the beauty of it,” he says, gnawing at a wing and proffering his plate again. (“Go on, have some, shovel a bit of bacon on there.”) “You have to have a physicality, so you can get up in front of an orchestra, lift up your arms and tell them how to play the music—everything: dynamic, phrasing, colour, shape, speed, emotion—by not saying a word.”
Inside the restaurant, a glass shatters. Ticciati grimaces in sympathy with whoever dropped it. After a moment he says, “It’s a beautiful sound, though, isn’t it?”