On September 10, the National House of Music opened the 42nd concert season with a large-scale musical project — Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Virgine”, performed by the Liatoshynskyi Capella conducted by Italian conductor Antonio Greco. A few days before the concert, Antonio spoke about the work on Vespro’s complex multilevel canvas, the experience of cooperation with John Eliot Gardiner and communication with Ukrainian musicians.
So, let’s talk about you, first of all. If we try to search in English or in Ukrainian we cannot find all the information about you. It is possible in Italian, but not every person in Ukraine knows Italian, so it would be nice if you tell something about your previous background and experience.
Antonio Greco: I will start from my studying years. I graduated in piano but when I was 14-15 I loved Chopin, Liszt, you know. But I discovered Bach and Monteverdi. I come from Cremona which is Monteverdi’s town. I’ve been singing my whole life because when I was a boy, I was singing in the Cathedral choir «Pueri cantores». When I was 15 I started singing the poliphony with the adult choir of the Cathedral and we had a big amateur choir. Maestro introduced us to Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso and Monteverdi.
We were 70 people singing Palestrina. But it was a great experience which gave me the way to other parts of music. I loved choral music and early music. I discovered «Orfeo» with Gardiner edition and «Matthaus Passion» with Karajan edition, you know, Christa Ludwig sings «Erbarme Dich». I started to convince that I wanted be with music in life. And then I started studying composition, choral conducting, orchestra conducting, then early music choral conducting in Renaissance and baroque music. And also I studied to sing, basso continuo.
You are really musicus like the person in Renaissance tradition who should make all the things in music.
Antonio Greco: Yes, that was the point. That is what I like and what I teach. It’s like uomo racinentalis as Leonardo, this type. So, yes, painter but not only. The early music needs many perspectives and many views. It’s important for me. When I was 20 I founded my choir Costanzo Porta, now it’s called Cremona Antiqua, but it’s the same choir. We won the Guido d’Arezzo Competition. I was 20 but there was my friends from 14 to 17. Many of them are still involved in this job. After the competition we started playing in some professional festivals. Ten years later I founded the orchestra of ancient instruments and even a school for the education of children choir singing and it became my job. I had many other experience for choral conducting in Italian opera.
You worked not only in early music but also with Mozart operas, Rossini, Verdi. It is interesting because you are specialized in early music but you are interested in everything. How can you combine that?
Antonio Greco: I think two main things. The first one is la parola in musica – the word in music. And the second one is the contrapoint, the thing I like most of all. The possibility to conduct your life as you want but you have good rules and they create the harmony with others. It’s my way of life and this is what I think I put through in music. It’s a good way to enter into other repertoire. Obviously I started not as an early music player, I studied early music after my twentieth. I practiced but…. You know, in Italy this music is not the way to live. Maybe in the last ten years things are changing but it’s not enough.
I’ve been for ten years a choirmaster of Opera Lombardia. It’s four-five theatres, everyone of them have four-five operas. I had forty shows in four months. I had two choirs and it was stressful, because I had two operas at the same time. I was rehearsing for “Turandot” in Milan and “Don Pasquale” in Brescia. I had an experience and then stopped. I had a possibility to be choirmaster in three great theatres. But it was enough Italian opera in my life. At the same time I started to conduct baroque operas on the festivals. I took the courage to change my life, just before I started to teach in the conservatory.
In 2015 Gardiner called me…
I wanted to ask you about this experience. It was the staging of three Monteverdi operas and Vespro.
Antonio Greco: And Bach Project in 2018. And then he called me for other projects. But now my career is growing up and it’s hard to manage a tour in South America. I’ve never been there. But the same day I received the call from Tokyo to conduct Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera. So I should go on my way. He also called me for a great project about Monteverdi, it was filmed and so on. But I had a staging of “Incoronazione di Poppea” and it was important for me.
When we talk about Vespro, I think about Gardiner’s performance. With this work he started his project with Monteverdi Choir. Have you been speaking with him about music, about some thoughts on how to build this great thing? Because it is really huge and scalable.
Antonio Greco: Yes, it is. I spoke with Gardiner about many arguments. I started working with him in 2015, he wanted to invite ten singers to prepare this Monteverdi operas project in 2017 in La Fenice in Venice. I was really happy. We had a lot of time together. But we never were talking about how to build, because I saw him building. Not Vespers, because it’s normal in concert and they play it every year. I arrived, two rehearsals – and a concert. The thing was unbelievable for me is that we have two rehearsals and I knew that they play every time this Vespro with him. And after the rehearsal he asked the choir «I don’t remember, how many of you did Vespro with me?». Five. The others were like me. It seemed like his normal Vespro because, of course, everyone knew his Vespro. Then we recorded “Ritorno d’Ulisse” in Wroclaw. Beautiful days.
Let’s talk about the Cremona Festival where you’ve just played Vespro. I understand that it’s the birthplace of Monteverdi, but what is it like more?
Antonio Greco: The festival started in 1993, so it was the thirtieth edition this year. Monteverdi was not so popular in Cremona and he was not popular in Italy. Austrian or English musicians discovered and studied this period. Some musicians in the beginning of the XX century, who played in conservatory. I remember that John Elliot Gardiner was there and it was Vespro. I was there, it was a really great concert. I couldn’t imagine that he would come back to Cremona to play Vespro again and I would play with him. In these thirty years many things changed.
Now in Cremona people know that we have one of the maximum ten composers in Western music. And this festival was important for me because I heard great players and I started to do my own projects as a professional player. The festival is regular – every year. For two or three weeks depending on who manages it. I’m a principal conductor from 2021, and we made with my group Cremona Antiqua many projects but the main was “Orfeo” last year. It was a pity that we haven’t done professional recording but we hadn’t enough money.
Vespro is difficult not only in scale but also in style. It combines Renaissance and Baroque traditions, prima prattica, seconda prattica. You should have a key to work with it. What is the key?
Antonio Greco: I was born in the 70th and if I think about myself, yes my life is in the XXI century but I’m not a man of XXI, I’m a man of XX century. The same is true for Monteverdi. If we will think about Claudio Monteverdi as a baroque composer we are out from the street. We have to approach him as a Renaissance composer who had a personality to create a new vision.
So, obviously, a new vision was a political, cultural one. Art, architecture was changing. But if you start from the period of Renaissance music like Philip de Vitri, you have the historical perspective. Many times I saw musicians starting from later 18th music. It doesn’t work. You come back but it’s not possible. Starting from there – everything is new. You can leave the invention, creativity and what is the most unbelievably energetic and powerful with a great porcure of innovation.
The other part of view Bach’s Arte della Fuga, for Italians Dante Aligieri’s La Divina Commedia. Some moments in the history when one person could take the whole cultural life and put it in the opera, in the book and this is what Monteverdi did in Vespro. As I said, he took his early music and created contemporary music, using Gregorian chant that is the basis of every psalm but in many different ways. In Magnificat every number has got the whole cantus firmus. But in Dixit Dominus no. There cantus firmus is like Picasso: pieces here and there. They are heard then disappear, then appear again in basso continuo and so on. The invention is incredible. You have Nisi Dominus cantus firmus 16-ton and after phrase (sings) everything happens.
And then he put in the new music like concertos. The sacred music with even erotism which tells us that he was in Mantua and was looking for another job in Rome or in Venice but he was still thinking of doing something to Vincenzo Gonzaga, his duke – the Toccata from Orfeo is incide. We talked today and yesterday that in Dixit Dominus there is a part of psalm about war (sings) but at the end is a small ritornello in orchestra and you discover that in the basis there was chords with dances. This was another way to say to duke «this is for you» and speaking about God. So «you’re the God for me and my life depends from you». It was difficult for musicians and you know Mantegnia, the great painter was in the court of Gonzaga and his aim of life was to stay alive and get money.
I should ask you about your work in Ukraine. What made your decision to come here at the time of full-scale war? And what were your fillings about work with Ukrainian musicians?
Antonio Greco: I made this decision because of friendship. Last July I was involved with Riccardo Muti in Le Vie dell’amicizia. The choir of the National Opera of Ukraine was there with Bohdan Plish. It was an intense tour for everyone. In few days the situation too created friendship. We had sensation to know each other for a long time. He said to me at the end of the tour that he had a big project to play Vespro in Kyiv. I said “yes, sure”. And he said “in September”. I had to think for five seconds. I just said “How can I say this to my parents”. But I know that my parents understand my life and I was not aware but I had just one way to demonstrate that I’m really in your thing and it’s important for me to support you. This is the reason.
I’m really happy about working with Ukrainian musicians. There are no musicians of early music apart from the flutes but everyone of them is doing a great job and Nataliia (choirmaster of the project Nataliia Khmilevska – O. O.) well prepared choir. And trombones, and the strings… When you have got a technique you can do everything. All you have to do is to love the thing you have to do. But with technique and intelligence things happen.
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