Follow his lead to a summer full of music

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"It's wonderful here," Mario Venzago says with a wide smile, his eyes twinkling behind subtly black-and-white striped designer eyewear. As the conductor makes his way to a dressing room at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, he exudes enthusiasm, a trait also very much in evidence later as he bounds onstage to lead the opening concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest.

In his soft Germanic accent, the Swiss-born Venzago gives the audience an animated description of the dramatic impulses behind music from Mozart's "Idomeneo." Afterward, he brings down the house: "I apologize for my English," he says. "Sometimes I don't even understand myself."

Actually, Venzago has no trouble communicating, linguistically or musically, which explains why he was the popular choice to succeed Pinchas Zukerman as artistic director of the festival, which runs through July 14. He'll also be back in September to open the BSO's 2000-2001 season.

"The first time I conducted this orchestra was five years ago," Venzago says. "It became really a strong contact. We developed a marriage."

Perhaps that makes this year's festival the honeymoon, since the first program included Debussy's sexy "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and the remaining concerts have lots of romantic music, too, along with an abundant dose of pure entertainment. The emphasis on repertoire that falls easy on the ears is deliberate.

"The idea is to do something absolutely different from the regular season," Venzago says, "to make it really a festival. We want to reach a new public, a young public. You will hear the classical composers and some of their best pieces, but mostly shorter pieces, not the heavier classics.

"I'm convinced the brain is a little bit changed in summer. You eat other things in summer than in winter. It's the same with music. When it is hot, you can't hear Bruckner symphonies."

Venzago, who turns 52 today, isn't only thinking about making audiences comfortable. He knows that the musicians could use a break, too.

"The orchestra has just come to the end of a hard season," the conductor says. "The pieces we are doing in the festival are very playful for the orchestra. It's not that the music is easier -- Ravel's 'Bolero' is very difficult to play, for example. But these are pieces they love to play. And they are some of my favorite pieces."

In putting together the Music-Fest programs, Venzago looked for overall themes and even came up with some fanciful titles -- "Mediterranean Breezes" and "Musical Magic" for last week's concerts, "A Night in Old Vienna" for Friday's, "Devilish Delights" for July 12, "Symphonic Voyages" for the festival finale on July 14. But the conductor is the first to say, "Don't take the titles too seriously."

"The titles were more of a game for me," Venzago adds with another of his broad grins, "a little bit of a joke. But you will find something true about each title. And if you don't find it, it doesn't matter."

No need to worry, then, why "Bolero," a work by a French composer based on a Spanish dance, will cap Friday's "Night in Old Vienna," with its waltzes and polkas by the Strauss Family and Viennese bon-bons by Fritz Kreisler. Venzago hears "Bolero" as "the culmination of all dance music in a certain way," so why not put it alongside Viennese dances?

From piano to podium

For the conductor, getting the most out of the music on each program is what counts. That was his same goal when he started his career in the late 1960s, not as a conductor, but as a pianist.

After a decade of concertizing and recording, Venzago decided to switch from keyboard to baton. He made his podium debut in 1978 with a Swiss orchestra and hasn't looked back.

"I believe a conductor must play at least one instrument really very well," Venzago says. "You must know music from the inside. To be a conductor you also have to have a lot of luck -- to find yourself in the right place at the right time. And you must be able to suffer. You can only learn conducting by doing; you can't do it at home. So when you stand in front of an orchestra for the first time, you know they know they are better than you. The first 10 years were very hard; I made a lot of mistakes. I still make mistakes."

Nonetheless, Venzago has enjoyed steady progress. Following the time-honored path of honing podium skills, he spent several years immersed in opera; there's no better milieu for a young conductor to learn technical and personal management skills. He served as music director of opera companies in Graz, Austria, and Heidelberg, Germany.

He remains "a fanatical opera conductor," but much of his time is spent now in purely orchestral circles. He is chief conductor of the Basel Symphony in Switzerland and is co-music director of the Basque National Orchestra in Spain.

No matter what music is at hand, Venzago brings the same basic philosophy to the podium.

"You must have ideas about the music," he says. "It is not only a reproductive art. If you only think about reproducing the music, you have only a museum situation. Music needs to be renewed. You must know tradition, but you must also be willing to change tradition. Of course, that's very risky. Some changes are good, some are not so good. The important thing is to have very strong ideas of how a piece must sound. Then you can convince an orchestra."

Venzago credits noted conductor and 18th-century music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt with helping him confront some traditions.

"I come from the Viennese tradition where every note is given the same weight," Venzago says. "Harnoncourt's approach was the absolute opposite of what I learned. He showed us that we had to learn new things. Every note had to speak with its own character, have its own color. The first time I heard Harnoncourt, like the first time I heard [pianist] Glenn Gould, it was a shock to me."

An ear for modern music

Venzago remains open to different interpretive styles -- "In the end, I have to decide what is for me" -- and to different forms of music. Although steeped in the standard German repertoire (Schumann is a particular favorite), the conductor also has a keen ear for contemporary sounds.

"I love really avant-garde music -- [Luigi] Nono, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen," he says. "New music says new things and changes your spirit and tradition. I conduct a lot of modern music in Europe. In the States, it is not as possible. There is less public for it, which is normal."

Despite the lack of popularity for most contemporary music, which is all but banished on most classical radio stations and increasingly rare at orchestral concerts, Venzago is upbeat about the future.

"There was a big century for painting in the past, and we just had a big century for film. I believe the 21st century will be a big century for music. It will be perhaps very different from what we know now. Music only for the brain, serial music, is very beautiful, but only for a small number of musicians. Now, more composers are writing in a new language which can please more people. Of course, music must never be vulgar; it must always come from the heart."

Even if today's neoromantic trend continues, Venzago will not likely turn his back on the music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern that first challenged conventional tastes back in the early decades of the 20th century.

"I just did a tour conducting Berg with incredible success," Venzago says, "so I know it is possible for people to accept this music. I think much of the public is simply afraid of the names Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Perhaps we should play their music under a different name -- Monica Lewinsky, maybe."

Audiences at the BSO's Summer MusicFest are not likely to encounter Schoenberg's (or Lewinsky's) name on a program, but there could still be a surprise or two in future years.

"I don't want to exclude anything," he says. "We'll see what works and what doesn't work. I like to experiment. I would like to have a little modern music, but not scare the public. And I would like to add some opera, too; it must come."

Meanwhile, Venzago is relishing his first festival here, especially since he has been joined by his family from Switzerland -- "Two boys," he says, his smile widening, "and only one wife."

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