When Daniele Gatti arrives next week to conduct the first of three closely watched programs this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he will do so under very different circumstances from his last BSO appearance. That was in 2009, when Gatti, who was rehearsing Verdi’s “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera, was tapped as a last-minute substitute for an ailing James Levine to lead the opening concert of the Carnegie Hall season. According to a New York Times article, he learned one piece — John Williams’s “On Willows and Birches” — during a car ride between New York and Boston the day before the concert.
A dramatic event, and certainly a memorable one, you might think. Yet when asked about it recently, Gatti seemed almost to shy away from the extraordinary nature of that event. Speaking by phone last week from his native Milan, he allowed that while that performance was “quite a dramatic moment, the memories are really strongly about all the musical experiences I had with the orchestra,” going back to his 2002 BSO debut. That bond is what’s important; everything else he finds “sometimes not so easy to talk about.” That is the impression the conductor projects: focused with great seriousness on the music itself, uninterested in things peripheral to it.
Fortunately, Gatti, 51, is a thoughtful and intelligent commentator on music, especially when it comes to two composers whose bicentennials are being observed this year: Verdi and Wagner. He will conduct three performances of the Verdi Requiem next week, then return in March for a program of Wagner excerpts that features mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung.
Like many Italian musicians, Gatti grew up with Verdi’s music. “The ground of the Italian repertoire,” he called it. But if Verdi is like a family member, Wagner is a newer, though no less passionate, love. “I fell in love with Wagner’s music recently,” he said. “[It] was something I met, in my life, and opened up the perspectives of making music for me.” During a stretch from 2008 to 2011, he conducted Wagner’s “Parsifal” every year at the Bayreuth Festival, and will lead a new production at the Met in February.
Thinking of the two composers together, he finds a sort of complementarity. “The subject that Verdi chose for his operas is . . . deeply human beings,” Gatti said. “Since the beginning of his career, and arriving at ‘Falstaff,’ what he was in search of was to send a message to humanity: What is inside the soul of a human being, it can be on stage. And that there is no age for that, no historical period. With Wagner it is completely different.” Instead of Verdi’s focus on this world and its human follies and tragedies, Wagner brings “a cosmic vision of art,” one whose guiding thread is redemption through that which transcends humanity.
That neat distinction gets blurred somewhat when it comes to Verdi’s Requiem, the piece in which the separation between earthly life and whatever is beyond it is confronted. Gatti described it as “a description, very dramatic, of the unknown moment when we pass.” And he paid particular attention to the fact that the piece ends in a quietly radiant C major. “This is not a tragic death of the Verdi of ‘Traviata,’ of ‘Rigoletto,’ where the opera is finishing in a minor key, with a catastrophe,” he explained. “Death is painted in major chords. There is a sort of openness; there is a sort of redemption. It is finishing in a sort of relief.”
Gatti’s final BSO program, in late March, is also devoted to a single composer: Mahler’s Third Symphony. While he has been conducting Mahler since his early 30s — “In my particular time, that was quite young,” Gatti said with a laugh — he tackled the Third Symphony only two years ago. It’s a refreshing reminder of the humility that the undertaking of great music often requires.
“I didn’t feel ready for that music,” he said. “So I left it just to rest. I conducted other things. And then, one moment, I said, now is the time to approach the Third. And my view, when you are just approaching your mature years, with experience and so on, you open the score and your eyes look for something different. I don’t know what that is. But I let the audience judge.”
Gatti will take the Mahler and Wagner programs on a sort of mini-tour of New York and New Jersey in early April. That undertaking, along with the number of programs he’s leading, makes it natural to wonder whether Gatti is being considered as the BSO’s next music director. He was emphatic, though, that he saw the three programs as “projects,” not as any kind of audition.
“They are typical projects, nothing else. I return after a long time to Boston with three of the closest composers to my heart: Verdi, Wagner, Mahler. What more can I ask? And then, all the other conditions and discussions are not on the table. It’s better just to stay on the artistic plan and really put a period at the end.”