Talking Heads: Damian Iorio

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

With the divisiveness surrounding these shores on account of Brexit, here is a tale of cross-European collaboration and unity. London-born and Italian based, conductor Damian Iorio has close links with Russia, France – and Milton Keynes. Arcana hooked up with him for a chat about conducting Russia’s flagship opera, bringing classical music to the UK commuter belt and promoting ‘home’ composers via the Naxos label.

We begin by talking about the flagship opera – Musorgsky’s epic, Boris Godunov, which Iorio has conducted at the Opéra Bastille in Paris this summer. He is wholly enthusiastic about the experience. “It has been very good, and what helps is that the production itself was great, and of course the music is marvellous. The cast have been phenomenal too. This is the first time I’ve conducted Boris, and we have done the first version – which isn’t done very often. It is not so well known, and there has been a lot of hard work to get it free and put it on.”

The opera had a complicated genesis, which he takes up. “The potted history is that the first version wasn’t passed by the imperial theatre committee, because they wanted more female roles. There were large-scale scenes, and it was never staged. Then for the second version he added the last act, and it was staged but not ultimately very much. Musorgsky was not a professional composer and his technical abilities were not so great, so Rimsky-Korsakov completed an orchestration, and this was taken as a new edition. We had to tweak it a bit, restoring some of the chamber-like qualities of the first version, especially because in Bastille we had a 15-year-old singing the address, so we had to be very careful balancing that out.”

Iorio has conducted opera in Paris before. “Ten years ago I was there to conduct Smetana’s The Bartered Bride”, he recalls. “From that I learned they have their own characteristics, and I remember the entrance to the pit and feeling the history behind me. There’s a little door near the pit that goes to a lake, a man-made reservoir. I thought I could disappear forever with all the ghosts of the past! It is a very large pit, and when I conduct there I feel a great sense of occasion. It is a real honour and privilege to have been there.”

Boris has more Parisian connections – and has also reaffirmed Iorio’s love for Russia. “It is a very important musical statement that has influenced both Debussy and Ravel”, he asserts. “The Pushkin libretto is based on fact, and so it is a very important historical statement. We worked with some great Russian singers for this production, and they treated me as Russian. I love the country deeply – my wife is Russian, I speak Russian, and it is an honour to be respected like that. I learnt from them of course, not least because the librettos were incredibly complicated. My wife and I translated it word by word to get behind the double meetings. The published version is complicated, and we had to get behind the text to understand the history of certain phrases and sayings.”

First impressions might imply opera in Paris and concerts in Milton Keynes inhabit very different worlds, but Iorio enjoys the contrast between the two. He has been Music Director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra since 2014, and enjoys it greatly – with music the common ground linking this to his work in Paris. “Milton Keynes is a very different animal but we have had Russian music there too in our recent season, through a programme of operatic music. We have done Mozart and Haydn too, and we have hooked up with some fantastic musicians, including Stephen Hough and Chloe Hanslip.”

He thrives on his dual nationality, as well as a multicultural thread that runs through his family. “I am half English and half Italian, and all my family are musicians. I was born and brought up in the London musical life, but I’ve worked for periods in Italy and lived and studied in Russia. I have a great affinity with Russia and actually feel quite Russian. To add to that I played in a Danish orchestra for six years, and still speak Danish now. It’s very important to know languages I think, to relate to the people you work with and the environment you’re in.”

The conductor is keen to further the cause of a number of Italian composers from the turn of the century, in the process of being rescued from comparative obscurity. Respighi is already relatively well-known, and Iorio has explored the trilogy of Roman symphonic poems with several orchestras, most recently the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra in April. The cause of Pizzetti and his contemporaries, however, is lesser known – and Iorio has recorded a disc for Naxos of the composer’s Symphony in A major and Harp Concerto.

“There are a lot of Italian composers who are not so well known,” he explains. “The list includes Malipiero and Casella as well as Pizzetti. These were all important figures at the time, but they had a rather different relationship with Fascism, and relating with the opera became more important in Italy. What I have been trying to do recently is to discover and record the repertoire of these composers. When my father was growing up, Italy was a great place for the Avant-garde. Last for a few decades but very interesting looking back. The Pizzetti symphony was written for the 2600th anniversary of the accession of the first Emperor of Japan. Britten wrote the Sinfonia Da Requiem for the same festival but it was turned down – and yet he had written this incredible piece. Pizzetti was considered on the same level as Britten and the Soprano and Harp Concerto are beautiful pieces.

Iorio speaks passionately about his work in this area. “It is important that people have access to this music, because in the past it has been recorded either badly or not at all. There is a whole world to be discovered, and I believe it’s the right time to program it again. I have a family link, as my grandfather’s wife was principal at the conservatoire in Naples and Rome. She had links to all these composers, and that gives the recording a personal edge for me.

It is of course pleasing to Arcana’s ears to learn that Iorio does not restrict himself to classical music – and does in fact have a deep love of progressive rock. Flitting between the styles comes naturally. “I’m trying to educate my kids properly, and that includes listening to Planet Rock. When I was 13-14 and living in London, there was a guy called Tony that I got to know. I had a cheap guitar so we did twelve-bar blues in the play centre, and he would let me play along. I used to play along to the music of Queen and Metallica – amongst many others! – and I used to go to Hammersmith Odeon and see concerts.”

Iorio highlights the pianist Gabriele Baldocci, with whom he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto no.2 with the Milton Keynes City Orchestra – as a classical artist who also loves rock music, and has written his own Queen tribute.

“It is not a coincidence that in a lot of classical musicians listen to rock”, he affirms. “They work hard, they’ve got technique and a lot of musicians can relate to that. A lot of pigeon holing goes on in music and it would be nice to move between these areas more freely.”

He has a lot to look forward to in the coming months of 2018. “We have a new season at Milton Keynes, where we will have some very good soloists, and I will be going back to orchestras in Holland and Spain. I have my National Youth String Orchestra here in London, and they will be playing at Kings Place on 12 August. We have some amazingly talented kids in Britain, and some choose to come to us instead of the National Youth Orchestra. Then from February onwards I will be with the Welsh National Opera and we will be doing Mozart‘s The Magic Flute. I also have Holst‘s The Planets with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Albert Hall. There is plenty to look forward to!”

Damian Iorio conducts the National Youth String Orchestra in a program of Mendelssohn, Strauss, Britten and Tchaikovsky over three dates in York, Ambleside and London – appearing at Kings Place on 12 August. For ticket information click here. For more information on Iorio’s forthcoming dates, you can visit his website