Interview: Maestro Simeone Tartaglione on Conducting ‘Peter and the Wolf’ TOMORROW 11/5 at 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn

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Residents of the DC Metro Region are in for a treat this weekend. For two performances only at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, Maestro Simeone Tartaglione will be conducting Peter and the Wolf. The 1936 composition by Sergei Prokofiev tells the story of Peter and his animal friends who are each represented by a different instrument in the orchestra.

Tartaglione is a faculty member and conductor of the orchestra at Catholic University of America (CUA). In addition, he is the symphony conductor for the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, the music director at the Newark Symphony Orchestra, the music director of the Delaware Youth Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director and conductor of the St. Anthony’s Italian Festival. When Pope Francis visited DC in 2015, Tartaglione conducted the CUA Symphony Orchestra in a performance for the Pope during a papal Mass that was broadcast live on national television.

Tartaglione is a resident of Gaithersburg, Maryland where he lives with his wife, violinist Alessandra Cuffaro, and two daughters. A noted musician, Cuffaro is one of only a handful of women – and the first Italian woman – to play the complete 24 Caprices of Nicolo Paganini.

Nicole: You will be conducting Peter and the Wolf at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn this Saturday. What can the audience can expect from this performance?

Maestro Simeone Tartaglione. Photo courtesy of the Arts Barn.
Maestro Simeone Tartaglione. Photo courtesy of the Arts Barn.

Simeone: I will be at the Arts Barn with the CUA Chamber Orchestra to perform Peter and the Wolf, which is without a doubt the best piece of music for introducing children to the instruments in the orchestra. The melodies are really unforgettable and the characters are so unique. Once kids listen to this music, they will remember it for the rest of their lives. I’m really excited to conduct this piece.

A lot of the orchestra members are the same musicians who performed for the Pope last year. In addition, my colleague, Dr. Rachelle Fleming [sister to opera star Renée Fleming] will be narrating the show. She is a great actress, an amazing singer and a wonderful voice professional.

We hope to have a little conducting session after the show, to let the kids in the audience get close to the instruments and see how they are played. I also hope to allow a few children to try to conduct Peter’s melody to show them how moving their arms faster or slower or bigger or smaller can change the sound.

I remember listening to Peter and the Wolf as a child and being fascinated by it. What is it about this music that speaks to children?

The melodies in Peter and the Wolf are painted in a way that they stick to your ears forever! You hear the instruments depicting the different animals and characters and it is unforgettable. In Peter and the Wolf you have a wonderful combination of a very simple, approachable story that is accessible to a child and first class music. The music has incredible complexity. There are composers like Mozart or, in this case, Prokofiev who are rare geniuses who can make complexity sound so simple. This piece can be appreciated on so many different levels. From those who are hearing it for the first time to the conductor who has done it many times, it’s still always such a joy.

peter-and-the-wolf

Tell us a little bit about your background in Italy and what led you to relocate to the United States.

I did my major studies in Italy. Training to be a conductor there is a very long process. First you must study an instrument for ten years (I studied piano), then you take an exam that will allow you to train for ten additional years as a conductor and composer. Because of this, a lot of conductors in Italy are quite old when they start their careers! I completed this training while also working as a pianist so I was quite busy.

It’s a very different approach over there. There are basically no auditions for conducting jobs in Italy. It’s not like in America where there is an opening and everyone applies and you can get the job without having a clue who is on the panel. You need to be politically connected in Italy. All the orchestras there are run by public money in the overwhelming majority so the appointments are made by politicians or their representatives in the institutions. That is why my wife and I moved. Because in America, merit counts. We decided to try living here for a couple of years with the goal of returning to Italy but I think now we are too used to a society that puts merit at its core. Even though we love Italy with all our hearts, I don’t think we will go back.

As a musician, how do you find the US different from Italy?

Mainly the organization. Here everything is run in a healthier way. There is a sense of responsibility and there is union protection for musicians. The way society is structured in the U.S., the system of merit, helps you get the best from every individual. In Italy, even though there are stupendous musicians there, including my colleagues and teachers, the way things are run make it harder and more complicated.

Tell me about your work at Catholic University.

Working there is such a pleasure. I feel like I am combining my training in Italy with my training here in the U.S. in a way that I hope makes the students happy.

I am especially excited about our conducting program. In the last three years we went from having three conducting majors to nine. The problem with training to be a conductor is that it is hard to practice! If you are at home, what are you going to do, just wave your arms around in front of the mirror? Well, that doesn’t work, so my supervisors and I were able to get an orchestra together once a week for the conducting majors to practice with. The students also practice with two pianists which is helpful because if you can conduct two people, you can conduct 100 people.

One class that I am very excited to teach is our “conducting seminar” which specifically focuses on the business side of conducting because moving your hands in front of the orchestra is really only 10% of what a conductor does.

So what is the other 90%?

The rest of conducting is all organization: Planning, budget, responding to the needs of that specific orchestra. Different types of orchestras have different needs – youth orchestras, professional orchestras, major or regional or community. There are a lot of differences and usually when conductors get out of college they don’t have a clue about this. I found all of this very hard to figure out at the beginning of my career so now I do specific exercises with my students so they can target the right audiences with the right programming and the right music for the kind of players they have.

You seem to really enjoy working with young people. Do you consider yourself primarily a youth conductor?

I call myself “a conductor for all ages” I work with youth orchestras, college orchestras, professional orchestras, older groups, and sometimes at festivals. I drive a little too much but apart from that I love what I do!

Who are some of your favorite conductors?

I just love Carlos Kleiber. There are some amazing videos of him conducting. It’s just incredible the amount of clarity and freedom he can express with music. I also love Claudio Abbado and of course Leonard Bernstein. I feel connected to Bernstein in a way because my teacher Gustav Meier [at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University] was once very close to him. I never met Bernstein but I do feel a connection to him.

How do you like living in the DC area?

We live in the Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg, Maryland and we love it. What we love about the Kentlands (a new urbanist, walkable community) is that it has a real feeling of community that we missed after leaving Italy. In the Kentlands everything is nearby. You can walk everywhere and that is unique for the U.S. We walk to the grocery store and meet friends for a chat along the way or have impromptu get-togethers with friends. That is something the Kentlands has fulfilled for us for the first time since we left Italy.

Gaithersburg is a great place to live with a lot of music and arts and culture. If I can contribute to that with what I do, I will be happy.

Peter and the Wolf will be performed by Catholic University of America Chamber Orchestra twice TOMORROW, Saturday, November 5th,  2016 at 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm at the Kentlands Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road, in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 258-6394 or purchase them online. (Note: The 4:30 show is sold out.) Information on other performances by Catholic University of America musicians can be found here.

Peter and the Wolf Summary: In this classic children’s symphony, a young boy ventures out into the woods near his grandfather’s home and meets some interesting characters who are memorably portrayed by different instruments. Written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936, this is a classic tale with a beautiful score perfect for music lovers of all ages.