To watch Robin Ticciati read a menu is to feel that you have led a sheltered life. It is high summer in London and we meet at the River Café, a short bike-ride over the Thames from his flat in Barnes. While my eyes alight on the obvious—mozzarella, ravioli—Ticciati’s glitter at the unexpected: baby red mullet and pigeon. He is a Londoner, born and bred, but his grandfather Niso, a composer, was from Rome, and it shows.
I will be shadowing him on and off for the next six months as he shuttles between conducting engagements. What he does is hard to pin down. Conductors are like football managers: they never kick a ball but you know when you see a good one. Ticciati, at 31, is already a very good one: “one of the greats,” reckons Sir Simon Rattle, who is arguably the world No.1 himself. A closer comparison might be with a masterchef, conjuring feasts from familiar ingredients. In summery Sussex, as the new music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Ticciati dishes up revelatory reinventions of Strauss and Mozart. In autumnal Edinburgh, where he is principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, his menu includes a meditative Japanese opener, radiant Mahlerian tragedy and risk-infused Haydn. And in wintry Vienna, where he is being honoured with a season-long residency that means guest-conducting leading international orchestras, it’s a four-course French banquet that leaves me quivering.
Back on the sunlit terrace of the River Café, the mullet has landed and we talk about Glyndebourne, where Ticciati’s predecessors include Bernard Haitink. It is ten years since he first worked for the company, as an assistant conductor on a production of “The Magic Flute”, touring towns like Woking and Stoke-on-Trent. At 24 he made his debut in the main house, in a production of “Così fan Tutte” directed by Nicholas Hytner. And now here he is, running the show.
In many fields, a decade is ages; in classical music, where conductors often work into their 80s, it’s a snap. Ticciati, though, has a long CV. At 13, as a percussionist and violinist in the National Youth Orchestra, he had an epiphany. “We’d been rehearsing Sibelius’s first symphony for weeks, and then Colin Davis came. He was a master of telling stories. We all thought we knew the piece, but he stood up on the podium and it changed. And I thought, I have to do that.”
Before he was 20, Ticciati was being invited to assist both Davis, who died in 2013, and Rattle. “We were Dads,” Rattle says with a smile. As the industry got wind of a wunderkind, the invitations began to pour in, but off Ticciati went to Clare College, Cambridge, to do a degree in music. The third child of a barrister and psychotherapist, he spent his 20s thwarting attempts by record companies to market him as a rising star and quashing breathless reports that he was, curly hair and all, Britain’s Gustavo Dudamel. Aged 22, he stood in for Riccardo Muti at La Scala, becoming the youngest person to conduct there, but he honed his craft working quietly with unstarry orchestras in small towns such as Gävle in Sweden and Bamberg in Germany. He has done as little press as he could get away with and still refuses to be lured into recording repertoire he feels unready for, including benchmarks such as Beethoven. Widely seen as Britain’s most important classical musician in a generation, he is playing a long game. “He’s patient,” Rattle says. “He is hurrying slowly.”
Glyndebourne is a huge gig, though, and with it comes power, responsibility, visibility. How much did he want it?
“Want it?” He toys with a mullet. “Crumbs. There are very few things I really let myself want. I want to be a good musician, a good conductor—I want that with a capital W. But I try not to allow myself to want things too much. In the past, I dreamt about it, but I didn’t want it. Is there a distinction?” He pauses. “I do feel the luck, though, of being somewhere I love, where it really is all about making music.” Aren’t most opera houses, I wonder? A tiny shake of the head. “Just being in one place, working on two operas, having five or six weeks of really concentrated rehearsal next to people like [the director] Richard Jones—that is remarkable. There’s no sense of clocking in and out. You wake up and it’s a performance day and the guy cleaning the windows says, ‘Yeah, I enjoyed that one you did last night. Didn’t go a bomb on the other one, though. Found the scenery quite invasive.’ It’s that sort of conversation, everywhere. Whatever mood you’re in, the place just makes you believe that it can all be about the music.”
It must have been a strange feeling, to be handed the keys to the house he grew up in. “The first time I ever stood in an orchestra pit was there,” he says. “They all know me pounding around the meadows in my running shorts, staying in the main house, going into Lewes and eating bacon sarnies with the stagehands at six in the morning. And I thought—music director? What’s going to happen, do I walk through the door as somebody else?” Apparently not. “The only thing I’ve done is to make it about the operas, and the people in the building, and a quest for excellence in the music. I think that’s my role: that I have to love unconditionally the gift that it is, but demand the best. There’s this feeling that you have to put up a shield once you take on [the music directorship], but I wanted to be myself. For me, authority comes from honesty, and preparation. Everything else follows.”
Glyndebourne has to “contain everything,” he insists. “It’s got to be a party, every year, of surprise and beauty and fear, so that the audience open the brochure and think, is that possible?” A week ago, I saw him conduct a bravura new production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier”, directed by Jones; next up is Mozart’s seldom-seen “La Finta Giardiniera”. “A bit out there for my first season,” Ticciati says, “but Mozart, well, he’s like my beating heart, the epicentre of it all.” And it chimes with his work in Edinburgh. “We are exploring conductors like Mozart, Haydn, Schumann, Brahms at a really fundamental level. When I go later into the repertoire, to Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, I feel I’ve got this grounding. As I get more confident, my heart’s bigger, I can be more expressive. I was desperate to do a ‘Rosenkavalier’ that wasn’t about the gold, the gilt, the bed. To say something else.”
Kate Royal, the leading British soprano whose performance as the Marschallin was shatteringly good, describes the production as “blessed”. “The danger was for me to wallow in the music”—among the most luscious ever composed—“but Robin made sure we kept communicating what was written,” she tells me later. “He would ask, ‘why do you sing that phrase like that?’ That would open up a discussion about text and meaning, and how we could relate that in musical terms with colour and rubato.” There were times, she says, such as the final trio in Act Three, when he “made time stand still”.
A glinting eye stares fishily up at me. Ticciati is keen to share the mullet. “Should we?” he asks. “Come on, let’s do it.” Persuasive as he is, I wimp out. The fish-head goes into his mouth. “Well, it’s different from the body,” he reports. “Good, but missable.”
Head versus guts: this is the question for Ticciati. With his gifts, he might have relied on charisma and instinct, rather than bother with the cerebral side of his craft. “At Cambridge I probably rejected that part of the course,” he says. “I thought, ‘do we really need to know all this, isn’t it enough just to feel it?’” A summer job as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant in Salzburg convinced him otherwise. Barenboim tells me his advice to Ticciati was, “You cannot run on intuition alone.”
Ticciati remembers it word for word. “Daniel said, ‘The people that work at this, that aren’t as talented as you, will end up being better musicians than you.’ The idea of people being better or worse, that didn’t really stay with me.” He nabs a chunk of my mozzarella, streaked with red chilli and luminous-green olive oil. “God, isn’t that amazing? What a combination.” Back to Barenboim. “What stayed with me was the core of what he was saying: you cannot run on intuition alone. Then, not long after that, I was working with Simon [Rattle] on Mozart’s ‘Il Sogno di Scipione’ and he said, literally in the first bar, ‘It’s not enough just to play the notes. This is not like a beautiful, romantic “Così” or something. For this music to work, you have to understand the grammar, the rhetoric, the phrasing, the articulation. Otherwise this piece is non-existent.’ That was definitely a moment for me.”
He now strives to engage both head and heart. “I might read a symphony score for the first time and read it like a novel, and get awash with feelings. And then I might look at it going, ‘hmm, so there it goes to the supertonic, he’s used that inversion to get to there, there’s a three-bar phrase, there’s a seven-bar phrase...’” A lover of words, he often tackles an opera text first. “I might have a month of reading the libretto, without even the notes, and then gradually I’ll put it all together.” Contemporary music is another story. “I probably won’t do a Schenkerian analysis [of the structure],” he laughs. “I’ll probably just look at it and go, ‘how the hell am I going to beat this?’ Every departure point is always different, so every process is always different.”
What is consistent is his desire to be “investigative”, going to primary sources—letters, biographical material, contemporary theorists, “quite academic stuff, but one sentence can make you go, ‘God, maybe those ten bars could be done like that!’ Or there’ll be a throwaway moment in a letter, like [the violinist Joseph] Joachim just happening to mention to Schumann, ‘you know, I’ve been really playing at the tip a lot today, and it’s created this effect, like snowflakes’.” Ticciati’s melodious voice drops, as it often does, to an awed near-whisper. “One line, from one little letter that you don’t even need to share with anyone, can colour an entire movement of a symphony when you conduct it.”
It is this detail, he says as his pigeon arrives, that enables him to “go beyond painting in primary colours”. The next stage is the essence of conducting: how to convey his interpretation to the musicians who actually make the noise? “That’s the beauty of it,” he says, gnawing at a wing and proffering his plate again. (“Go on, have some, shovel a bit of bacon on there.”) “You have to have a physicality, so you can get up in front of an orchestra, lift up your arms and tell them how to play the music—everything: dynamic, phrasing, colour, shape, speed, emotion—by not saying a word.”
Inside the restaurant, a glass shatters. Ticciati grimaces in sympathy with whoever dropped it. After a moment he says, “It’s a beautiful sound, though, isn’t it?”
Tyranny masquerading as democracy. That was how Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, once described theatre directing. Conducting too has long been the preserve of tyrants: men of unassailable self-importance, imposing their will with an iron fist. Ticciati is different, says David Watkin, who has been principal cello in many great orchestras including the SCO, in his quest for something radically collaborative, which paradoxically enhances his distinctiveness. “It’s never about him. That goes against something very prevalent, which is the cult of personality, but it allows him to serve the music in the best possible way. He arrives understanding, knowing and really being inside the piece, then encourages a reflexive process where he’s listening and sensing what everyone else can bring. That’s a very courageous way of conducting, very empowering for the musicians. In the old hierarchy, unless you were a principal you were probably ignored by the conductor and felt like a cog in a wheel. But you can transform the sound of an ensemble by drawing the sound out from the back desks. Robin is the most likely to find that, to invite those musicians in. It is transporting.”
At Glyndebourne, David Pickard, the general director, has seen Ticciati go from a “son of the house with superabundant talent” to a “father figure for the entire organisation” almost overnight. Not long after he became music director, they were walking across the car park. “He suddenly announced he wanted to nip into the props department. He sat down with them all for a cup of tea, and afterwards, the head of props told me no previous music director had ever just dropped in to say hello.” It’s certainly hard to picture Haitink having a cuppa with the technicians. “But it wasn’t Robin saying, ‘look at me, how un-grand and un-starry I am’,” Pickard goes on. “He wanted to know who the props guys are, what interests them, excites them, drives them. Leadership is partly about visibility. Robin’s ability to be present, to listen, to tease out the best in people, is incredible. He wants to nurture every single bit of the organisation whether it’s his area or not.”
“He’s a mensch,” shrugs Rattle. “It’s to do with humanity. Of course he’s a very gifted conductor, but you have such a strong feeling of who he is through his work. That incredible, infectious warmth is very unusual.” He says Ticciati’s agents call him Radiant Robin. “They’re teasing him, but there is some truth in it: you do feel better when he’s in the room.”
“I want to be a music director who can go to every office and say, ‘how are you doing, how’s it going, what are the ticket sales like for the third “Onegin”, do you need me for this, what can I do?’” Ticciati says a few weeks later, when I return to Glyndebourne to see “La Finta Giardiniera”. “I really want to be responsible for the energy of the building.”
After ten years, that building has entered his bloodstream. “It’s an illusion, of course, but it feels like my spirit has been here a while.” We’re in his dressing room in the so-called Long Interval: out on the lawns, operagoers in ballgowns are enjoying champagne picnics as the sun sinks lazily over a glorious landscape. Ticciati has temporarily swapped his own concert tails for a blue shirt and trousers. Well over 6ft, he is a study in elegance, but seems unaware of it. He offers me tea and a bit of a cheese-and-ham sandwich. “Sorry I haven’t got anything else. With ‘Rosenkavalier’ I had to eat about three plates of pasta in the interval, just because the brain uses up so many neurones in the first act. But this is the type of music where I have half a banana and a cup of tea and go on with it, and weave a bit more, and improvise.”
Mozart wrote “Finta” as a teenager. The plot is bonkers, but some of the music is extraordinary. “It’s not all wonderful, but we searched for gold in every bar, and sometimes it just hits you in the face, doesn’t it?” From my seat in the circle, looking down on Ticciati in the pit, I stop noticing most of the action on stage. He is conducting the outstanding Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with his hands alone, no baton, and his gestures are transfixing. What do they mean?
He looks pleased to be asked: this development of his physical language is conscious. “In the Strauss, I went on a bit of a journey, letting phrases unfold and showing horizontal lines and painting more with the music. What you’re seeing in this Mozart is everything I learned from that.” He was never taught, formally, how to conduct. “And the thing is, nobody ever tells you anything! About a year ago, I started to think, ‘OK, I really want to improve, I want to become a better musician and conductor—how am I going to do this?’ Certain things weren’t happening that I wanted to happen. So I’ve been exploring physicality much more, and these two operas have made it just go—boom.” And why has he relinquished the conductor’s only instrument? “For the first time in my life I felt I was missing something essential, with the baton, so I put it down on the first day of rehearsals and just breathed with the singers. It’s been a complete liberation.”
In the pit, there is a camera on Ticciati, so those on stage can see him. He sometimes uses the footage to analyse the effect of his movements on the music. “You need a glass of wine when you go back and watch it, but it’s very instructive. What I’m trying to do is to marry a physicality that is so precise and honed with a brain that is so knowledgeable about the music that I’m in control of everything, and yet free, so that everyone in front of me can really express themselves.”
It can backfire. He says certain orchestras “murdered” him early in his career, with musicians talking in rehearsals or moaning at the opening bars of a symphony. “An appeal for lbw and it was only the first ball!” You know things are bad when an Englishman reaches for a cricket metaphor. And this stuff seems petty, infantile.
“Useful,” he replies. “Very, very useful.”
Even now there are whispers that some musicians find his gestures unclear. One well-placed observer said he’d seen a performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” at La Scala that was “all over the place”—some imprecise baton technique, apparently. In 2012 Mark Swed, the music critic of the Los Angeles Times, described Ticciati’s reading of Sibelius with the la Philharmonic as “extreme and self-centred”.
“Not everybody finds him easy to follow, to read completely,” Rattle says. “He’s after a lot of things at once. As his musical ideas get more and more sophisticated, he has to find more clarity to convey them. In a way, the conveying was easier when the ideas were simpler. There is nothing safe about what he does, but now he has to refine it so that it’s not confusing.”
After years of soul-searching, Ticciati no longer views incomprehension on the part of his players as his fault. He refers again to “going deep into the fundaments of music. If someone doesn’t know that at a certain moment the music could do that, they don’t always trust your physicality. Orchestral musicians are by and large pretty phenomenal and they can do extraordinary things. It’s just about getting them into your mind and way of working.”
This self-belief is new. “On one level, conducting gets harder: just the idea of interpreting is always going to be fiendish. But certain things become easier. How you find your posture on the podium, how you express something physically, how you instruct people in what you want. At first you’re finding all that out, so every up-beat has a question mark. As you trust yourself more, you can really find out who you are.”
“He works on such a subtle level that some of it will be over the heads of certain players,” says Watkin. “Some musicians don’t want that challenge. In many ways, it’s easier to live under tyranny. They can’t see why great conductors can’t just beat 1-2-3-4. But any fool can beat time. Robin brings so much more: not just when to play, but how to play. He demands a lot of his players.”
Of his audiences, too. Opera gets a bad rap for being elitist, pricey, out of touch. The champagne doesn’t help, but Glyndebourne puts on some of the most imaginative work to be seen anywhere in the world. Pickard knows Ticciati will “ruffle a few audience feathers” with his choice of repertoire, directors, conductors and styles. “But he won’t just light the touchpaper and retreat. Robin will walk into the flames.”
“The audience are beginning to realise that it’s not enough just to have lovely music washing over you and a beautiful set,” Ticciati argues. “Music should be a forum: it has got to probe, investigate, make us question things. It’s good to provoke. Not for provocation’s sake, but to produce bits of art where people are shocked, where they go, ‘God, I tell you what I hated about that’, and I go, ‘Yes!’ As long as it’s good work. As long as it’s not safe. As long as it’s not just doing what it says on the tin. We’re beyond that. We’ve got to search so much deeper. Aspects of classical music are hard, we shouldn’t be afraid of saying that. But even if you’ve never heard a bar in your life, the best opera can do more than Shakespeare, more than Aristotle, more than anyone to make you think. It can re-examine bravely, and wistfully, and uncomfortably, what it is to be human.”
His eyes are glittering again. “That’s what I really want.”
Was it something in the water? Within six months in 2014, Schumann’s complete symphony cycle was recorded by three major conductors: Yannick Nézèt-Séguin, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic; and his old protégé Ticciati, with the SCO. Comparisons were inevitable. Andrew Clements, a critic not easily dazzled, declared Ticciati’s account “by a considerable margin the best of them” in a five-star Guardian review, praising “these urgent performances” in which “every bar seems alive and full of interest”—and there are thousands of bars. (“I was thrilled,” Rattle assures me, when I ask how it felt to be trumped by his apprentice.)
On a dreich October day in Edinburgh, Ticciati tucks into steak and chips and says he knew in his first week with the sco, in the Highlands in 2008, that the relationship would be “special”. They named him principal conductor a few months later, and have extended his contract twice: he will be there until at least 2018. The musicians, David Watkin says, “are really up for what he brings and what he asks. One of the words Robin uses most is ‘risk’, as a command: ‘risk that note on the oboe not speaking’, ‘risk that the ensemble is not together so we can find something more magical’. And we go with him.”
That evening, at the Queen’s Hall, the sense of risk is thrillingly present in Haydn’s Symphony 104. In a moment of mastercheffery, it follows Mahler’s shattering “Kindertotenlieder”, confirming that Ticciati does not conduct to reassure. In his hands the symphony is so alive it is redemptive. I’d studied it as a set text for GCSE, and avoided it ever since. Now here it is, not scrubbed and obedient, but messy, joyous, jazzy.
At lunchtime Ticciati had talked of the “freedom” Haydn needs. “He’s a gamesman, a joker, a chameleon. You never quite know where you are. With the Mahler, I’ve been really controlling about the precise colour I want, the exact type of bow-stroke. With Haydn, no one bar is the same and I’m not deciding what to do until the moment we’re doing it. So if there’s one phrase where the first violins aren’t quite together with the second flute because I’ve risked doing some- thing to take the whole movement in a different direction, that’s fun. To get orchestral musicians not to think that something has to be perfect—that kind of perfect—is exciting.” “With some conductors,” Watkin says, “it’s ‘watch me at all times because I might do anything.’ That’s like bad parenting. Robin’s philosophy is ‘watch me because we all know what we’re doing here, so let’s play with this, experiment, improvise together.’ He’s interested in generating something spontaneous, so one little eyebrow leads in an unexpected direction and it becomes less like a symphony and more like playing string quartets. It’s a very special experience.”
The risks are calculated, and founded on diligence. “You don’t know how hard I fight so that we can have four or five rehearsals in a week,” Ticciati says. “I don’t want us to be like some orchestras, where it’s one rehearsal and a concert. It’s not that greatness can’t happen from that. But we’ve got to be idealists here! It’s not enough to come and play a piece through, go through some corners, and do the concert: we’ve got to rehearse it, come back next day, and, it having grown, work on it again—and then again the next day.”
He sees the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as “the greatest” example of this. “Working with them blew my mind: here’s an orchestra who turn up the first day and it’s already pretty incredible. And they come back for another two days of rehearsals, and on the third day they are still going, ‘no, let’s work, let’s work on that’.” He clarifies: “When I say fight, it’s not about conflict. The sco management are so open when it comes to my dreams for the orchestra. But what’s not always open is the purse. If I don’t push, it won’t happen, because rehearsal time is the easiest thing to scrimp on.”
At a time when purses for the arts are snapping shut, does he worry? “The lack of rehearsal time is dangerous for lots of reasons. But especially for building a mentality about what we’re really trying to do, as musicians—how deep we can go into a piece, and what the idea of a real interpretation is.”
After a decade of avoiding the press, his “conscience doesn’t feel so bad about talking” now. “I’m not ready, and I don’t want, to be a politician for music. But I am ready to talk about the joy of it. Somehow we have to make it a part of the national psyche, that this type of art can feed people in an amazing way and give them hope. So it is money and support and rehearsal times, yes, and it’s also about getting people there: making music part of the fabric of our lives again. I do want to be an ambassador for the love that music can give people.”
Can he describe that love? “If you get the right performance, you’re in the company of people who are giving their souls away to this: people who have studied for however long, mastering their instruments; composers who spent their lives trying to write pieces that explain the world’s condition, the human psyche. And if you get there, then it’s properly touching people’s hearts. It’s emotional freefall. It’s skydiving.”
Skydiving? Is Ticciati one for jumping out of a planes? He grins. “Well—no. The closest I get is maybe surfing in a cold Cornish sea in November. That’s what I really love, actually. Just to be on my own, in the sea, buffeted by the waves. Like anyone I’m seduced by the glittering turquoise waters of the Aegean, but my God, the sea in Britain, the grey, silver-tipped, cold, brooding waters—I really get fed by that.”
Conductors have to be both minutely sensitive and resolutely thick-skinned. Affable as he is, Ticciati also seems reclusive. “It’s not about shutting myself in a hut, but you do need some armour. You can’t reveal every wound or crack or worry. You need a defence, but one that doesn’t alter who you are. I love cities, people, energy, interaction, things being alive. It’s just that there are moments when my mind and body go, ‘you need to be on your own, now’... Maybe a better translation is, not being responsible for people, just for a while.”
“It’s a lonely profession,” says Rattle, who gets “relatively frequent” phone calls from Ticciati. “We all need someone to hold our hand, to say ‘you screwed up, but don’t worry, who didn’t screw up?’” Has he seen him screw up much? “I’ve seen him do things that really didn’t work, sometimes in the same concert as things that worked sensationally. But he is the kind of musician who will screw up something because he has so much to say, and perhaps he tries to say it all at once. The screwing up will make for something better in the long term.”
On an icy winter’s day in Vienna, Ticciati goes for a walk. He’s forgotten his gloves, so I offer mine. He frets that his hands will stretch them, but I insist. The walk was my idea. Soon he will be on stage at the Konzerthaus with one of the world’s great orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, and I’m not taking the blame for any frostbitten fingers.
Tonight’s menu from this Englishman, in Austria, with a Dutch orchestra, is all-French: Fauré, Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy. “I wanted Apollonianism and Classicism and stile antique and Secessionism and Modernism,” he says, “in one bow.”
He’s half-joking. “It’s quite controversial to start with Fauré’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ suite because it doesn’t go ‘Bam! Welcome to tonight’s concert!’ But there’s death, a spinning wheel, forests: you can practically smell the symbolists at work. And Fauré’s interesting and difficult because it’s not music you can force too much. There needs to be enough romantic fervour, but if you give it too much red blood, you sort of crush it. And if you don’t give it enough sensitivity, it sort of happens and you go: ‘what was that?’ If you get it right, though, there’s something about the sound structure of this piece that is so arresting. Something doesn’t have to be loud just to gather everyone’s attention. It’s just there.”
The second course is Berlioz’s wacky take on the “Death of Cleopatra”. “A wildcard,” Ticciati enthuses, as we approach old Vienna, with its twinkling lights and schnitzel-stuffed tourists. “We go back to 1829, his entry in the Prix de Rome competition, and the judges going ‘what is this? You can’t set text like this!’ The structure of the whole piece is all up in the air, and the harmony is crazy. Three trombones come in during the meditation, you have pizzicatos that sound like a funeral march, a death at the end where the double basses are kind of vomiting themselves up. But the orchestration, the word-setting, is just amazing. It’s wild, it’s modern, yet it’s the earliest piece in the programme. Very hard, though. Put next to the Fauré, it’s interesting: Paris, the difference of however many years. It’s fun to think about it.”
Berlioz looms large for Ticciati, who went on a “pilgrimage” to France last year with Berlioz’s biographer, David Cairns. “It was brilliant and depressing, because it was sort of there and sort of wasn’t and it was up to your imagination to feel it. We went to his birthplace at La-Côte-Saint-André, and to Paris, to the Conservatoire where he wrote today’s piece, to the Bibliothèque Nationale. I looked at every single manu- script.” Berlioz was equally important to Colin Davis, Ticciati’s late mentor, but “I don’t think so much of Colin’s Berlioz now. I think of the memoirs, the letters, the streets he walked. I hope when I conduct Berlioz I am going to Grenoble and trying to imagine [his muse] Estelle Duboeuf’s shoes, or the little flute he played with his father.” The researcher in him again.
After the interval, it’s Ravel’s La Valse. “Which has to be tragic, Schubertian, melancholic, and yet within all that secessionist gilt, it has to dance. And it has to be transparent. It’s 13 minutes. But very hard, OK?” he grins. To round it all off, he has the deliquescent “La Mer”. “One of the greatest pieces ever written for the orchestral repertoire: tonality just about beginning to break up in Debussy’s hands. You have to get the sea in all its grandeur, and yet the glint of the waning moon on a single ripple, or the little urchin that comes out of the water, has to be there too. You need clarity but also impressionistic ebb and flow. And, apart from the climaxes, most of the piece is basically pianissimo, dolce, tiny dynamics. It’s very hard!”
And bold. “Normally you do an overture, a concerto, a symphony. Or one little opener, then a break, then an epic, say, Bruckner 7. Here we have four completely different sound-worlds, colours, forces. It’s more challenging. But I love it.”
We are in the capital of classical music and Ticciati is trying to remember when he first came here. “It should be etched into my mind, and I’ve got no idea,” he says, as we walk past a luthier’s window, a sight as ordinary in Vienna as a nail salon in New York; past the Musikverein, the most famous concert hall in the world; past streets named after Bruckner and Liszt and Schoenberg. “I know I did come here when I was younger, but the first moment I actually remember is in 2008, waiting in a square outside the warehouse where [the chamber orchestra] Klangforum Wien rehearse, with my score for Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia”. The first time it was real for me was when I was here to make music.”
Does that happen a lot—that real life is less real to him than music? “I feel so, so married to the idea of music. And everything connects to it. If I’m not reading a score, I want to read a book, see a film, have dinner with friends, go for a run, but I do find it quite hard to do something just for the sake of it. I’m a huge reader, I get transported by sentences in John Banville or Julian Barnes, but for me, escaping into these worlds, everything goes back to the score. I read because of the music. And I know that when I read, I become a better musician.” He laughs. “Of course I don’t go, ‘OK, time to become a better conductor, get the Banville out.’ But even if I disconnect from music, I’m actively disconnecting from it so it’s there. And more and more I find that I’m listening to so much. I wake up and it’s the first thing I go to; I come off stage and I need to put more on. I’m certainly happiest when it’s in my mind.”
Ticciati cannot be short of groupies, but says he is “with no one” at the moment. He is close to his parents and his siblings, Hugo, a violinist, and Susannah, a theology professor. He has a rich and wondrous life, he assures me, not a lonely one. He is in love with what he does; he wants for nothing.
Except coffee and cake. Deciding he just about has time before his pre-concert balance call with the orchestra, Ticciati steers me into the Hotel Imperial, where, in the splendid lobby, a black-tied pianist is delivering a calamitous version of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. If it disappoints him, here in the city of Schubert and Mahler, he doesn’t show it. His chooses a cake named after Esterházy, Haydn’s patron, and orders black coffee in fine German.
It’s been a big year, I say—Glyndebourne, this Vienna residency, the five-star Schumann disc. He looks uneasy. “Part of me wants to say, yeah, but the moment you have a ‘big’ moment, there’s a huge hole to fall into.” A few days ago, he was watching the film “Man on Wire”. “At the end, Philippe Petit, who’s just tightrope-walked between the twin towers, says, ‘you have to refuse your own success.’ Bam! I’ve seen it about ten times and that hits me every time. ‘You have to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every idea as a challenge.’” He laughs as he sips his coffee. “I’m a bit obsessive about that. So when you say it’s been quite a big year, part of me wants to say yes, and part of me wants to go ‘no!’”
David Watkin has noticed this. “Robin is continually renewing himself. He will never relax and say ‘now I understand that.’ He’s already amazing, but he’s unfinished. There’s probably nothing he can’t do.”
“I suppose he must be ambitious,” Rattle says, “but you don’t really get that from him. He only seems to be thinking about what is best for the music. Advancement up the greasy pole doesn’t seem to come into it.”
Coffee drained, Ticciati pops a final bite of old Esterházy into his mouth. The Concertgebouw awaits; he needs to get cooking. “Refuse your own success,” he repeats, as he returns my gloves and gives an enormous hug goodbye. “Every second is a big second.”