'It's incredible to lead an orchestra in Italy, the place where music was born'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'It's incredible to lead an orchestra in Italy, the place where music was born'
Alpesh Chauhan is the principal conductor at Parma's Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini. Photo: Marcello Orselli

"There's a huge passion to make music in Italy, which makes it a great place to work and spend time," says conductor Alpesh Chauhan. At the age of just 28, Chauhan is the principal conductor of the main orchestra in Parma, the northern city chosen as Italy's Capital of Culture for 2020.


Despite still having a base in the UK, the role in Parma has given Chauhan the chance to get to know the city and travel to other parts of Italy for concerts. When The Local spoke to the conductor, he was in Verona for rehearsals, and he has upcoming concerts in Milan as well as across Europe in the UK, Netherlands, Spain and France. 

"There's so much I love about Italian culture and the longer I stay here, the more I learn about it," he says. "I was interested to see how regional the food traditions are -- you can drive 20 kilometres in any direction and the menus will change. I love the lifestyle, the wine, and just being in the place where music was born."

Taking up the role in Parma came with challenges, including the obvious language barrier leading an orchestra mainly made up of Italians. But Chauhan says the players encouraged him to try to speak Italian as much as possible, offering translations for words he didn't understand, which has helped him learn the language impressively fast.

"When you learn a word in that situation, on the job, you always remember it," the conductor explains. "It's very helpful that music has a lot of Italian words, so the hardest thing for me was finding the filler words -- in music you just get the bare instructions. But when you go for a drink after rehearsals, I've found you learn so much just through listening and seeing how they put sentences together."'

At the end of a performance. Photo: Luca Trascinelli


One big difference in the working cultures between Italy and his native England is the professional hierarchy, which Chauhan has found is stricter in Italy.

"In other countries, you have a professional relationship but it's casual enough for them to call you by your first name. In Italy, in the first rehearsal they all get on their feet and using the term 'maestro' is a sign of respect. I tell them they can call me Alpesh but they say that when I'm on the box, I'm the maestro," he explains.

Despite the formality of the conductor-musician relationship, Chauhan says he has found a sense of community and loyalty in Italy which surprised him. In many ways, he says Italy's culture is "worlds apart" from Britain's, but he has found many similarities with India, where his parents are from. 

He finds that in both countries, once you have been accepted as part of a community -- such as the orchestra -- everyone in it will go the extra mile to treat you well.

Photo: Patrick Allen

"There's a real sense that people look after you, even at work it's extremely familial and people will do their best for you. Both Italian and Indian culture revolve around family, friends, being together with good company and good food."

This familial atmosphere makes it easier to do a job that he says at times makes for "a very lonely life". Chauhan says that most conductors never formally retire, but continue working and carrying out the travel that involves into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

The nature of the job requires moving from place to place rather than sticking with one orchestra, but he notes that with friends in different cities and technology offering constant connections to friends and family, conductors today aren't as isolated as they may once have been.

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What's more, for Chauhan there's no possibility of doing anything else -- he describes conducting as an "obsession." 

There are no other musicians in his family, but he first discovered classical music when a cello teacher performed at his school, prompting him to sign up for lessons in the instrument. 

When asked what it was that drew him to the cello, the 27-year-old can't quite put his finger on it: "It was just something that really focussed me, like a fire burning inside me. I was always wanting to get my cello out and play, always looking ten pages later in my practice books to see what was coming up, so my music teacher had to rein me in and be methodical, explaining that I had to work my way there."

The Parma orchestra. Photo: Gianni Cravedi

While playing in youth orchestras, he developed an interest in the role of the conductor and how they brought all the musicians and their music together, and one day came across a stack of old orchestral scores in a library cabinet at his school.

Chauhan asked the school's Head of Music if he could take home any spare copies of the scores, and was able to. "No-one really uses those in schools now; in music classes you just do basic keyboard exercises, usually. So I started studying them myself, all the time really -- I'd be looking at them in other classes whenever I got bored."

READ ALSO: Five great reasons why Parma is Italy's 2020 capital of culture

Having started out in youth orchestras while conducting on the side, Chauhan's career has since gone from strength to strength, including a debut at the UK's BBC Proms and conducting a BAFTA-winning film, before taking up the role at Parma's Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini at the start of this season.

He has concerns that other children from similar non-musical backgrounds might miss out on the opportunity to fall in love with music due to cuts to arts in the schools and funding cuts to orchestras and other cultural organizations.

Photo: Luca Trascinelli

"There's a sadness among the players here, because Italy has always had a great musical culture so they remember how it used to be. I thought this would be less of a problem in Italy, but the more I speak to colleagues here the more I realize it is an issue here as well, and the financial crisis has made things particularly difficult," Chauhan explains.

In the UK, he has been involved in projects to promote music in schools, creating a film and educational resources based around ten pieces of classical music, and he hopes that similar projects can raise the status of classical music worldwide.

"You need to put instruments in the hands of children, you need schools and authorities to understand the importance of music. It keeps your mind healthy, it gives you things of incredible value: cooperation, creativity, patience, self-confidence and self-expression," the conductor says.

"Music is as important as sport, but with sport you have immediate visible effects -- you can see if someone's obese and you can tell if you struggle to walk up a flight of stairs. But music and the arts are a big part of positive mental health, and it's very sad to deprive a generation of this opportunity."

READ ALSO: Italy puts 200,000 classic Italian songs online for free




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