Since Antonio Pappano last appeared with the New York Philharmonic, in 2010, his name has changed—having been made a Knight of the British Empire in 2012, he’s now Sir Antonio Pappano. But what hasn’t changed is that he remains one of the world’s most sought-after conductors. When not at London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden, or with Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, he’s crisscrossing the globe, either as a guest conductor with the world’s preeminent opera companies and symphonic ensembles or as a pianist performing with acclaimed singers such as Joyce DiDonato and Ian Bostridge.
Sir Antonio—or Tony, as he’s often called—says he’s “thrilled” to be back at the New York Philharmonic. “The Orchestra has a very distinctive personality and electric kind of performance style, which I like very much,” he said in a telephone interview from London. “For somebody who works in the theater so much, I’m always looking for a certain amount of electricity and energy: the music has to jump off the page. The New York Philharmonic does that.”
The music he hopes will jump off the page, February 8–10, is bound to particularly delight lovers of keyboard music. The program features Britten’s Piano Concerto, with Leif Ove Andsnes, the Philharmonic’s 2017–18 Artist-in-Residence, and Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, Organ, with the Orchestra’s organist, Kent Tritle.
The program’s genesis, Pappano recalls, started with the Britten. “Leif Ove made a plea for the piece. I said, ‘O.K., I’m game!’ I’ve never conducted it, so I was very interested.” The two have worked together before, but it’s been a while since their last collaboration. “This is a kind of rekindling of a relationship, which I’m very excited about,” Pappano says. And he is also excited that the vehicle is this bravura work that is only occasionally heard live. Pappano explains why: “I think it needs a champion, somebody to say, ‘This is a really great piece and I’m going to play it.’ Some pieces just need to wait for their time.”
Pappano, 58, was born in England to Italian immigrants; he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, with his family when he was 13, and is now back in London. Perhaps that underlies the initial idea of making this an all-English program. “But we decided against that,” he explains. “This keyboard idea took over.”
That led to the Saint-Saëns symphony, which Pappano “adores. Not only does it have the organ, but piano and piano duet. It’s written by a consummate pianist, as was Britten, so they have that in common. And both composers are so sensitive to classical idioms.”
But, Pappano explains, “I wanted to keep the first half English,” and so the program opens with Vaughan Williams’s beloved Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. “I thought the Vaughan Williams would show another face of English music — the pastoral side, the relationship to early music, somehow. Also, from a color point of view, the idea of concentrating on the strings” was appealing, whereas the winds and the percussion “have a lot going on” in the Britten.
Indeed, there is a lot going on in all three works, and with so little time to rehearse, quickly earning the orchestra’s trust is critical. How does that happen? “Being really well prepared is certainly the key element. The hope is that you find the rhythm, the chemistry, relatively quickly. You just have to be very professional. And that comes mainly through knowledge of the music and the organization of the rehearsals — knowing what you want, how to get it, and not waste their time.”
“The most important thing,” he adds, “is learning how to bring out the best performance from everyone you come in contact with.” Given the accolades bestowed on him over the years, this is one skill Pappano has clearly mastered.
Ira Rosenblum recently retired as the Director of Publications at The Juilliard School. The author of The New York Book of Music, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Juilliard.