PERSPECTIVE — The Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy, now in its eighth year, offers a handful of aspiring conductors 10 privileged days of immersion in one of the masterworks of the genre with the man who knows the scores, the traditions, and the abuses of the traditions inside out. Last December, at the Fondazione Prada, in Milan, Nabucco was under the microscope: Verdi’s fourth title and the one that made his name. As usual, applications poured in by the hundreds.
Among the twelve finalists in contention for the five spots in the program was the Shropshire native Henry Kennedy, then 25, who stepped up with degrees in clarinet and conducting from the Royal Academy of Music, London, in his pocket. At auditions with Muti’s Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, Kennedy’s first test was to conduct the splashy yet nervous Nabucco overture, seven Technicolor minutes marked by chameleon changes of atmosphere, texture, and tempo.
“Bravo,” an impassive Muti said as Kennedy laid down the baton. From there, it was on to “Va, pensiero,” the choral lament of the Hebrew slaves, a peak moment Verdi anticipates in the overture. “Benissimo,” said Muti. “No smile after the overture,” Kennedy recalled two months later when we first met in Chicago at Muti’s rehearsals for Beethoven’s Ninth with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “No smile after ‘Va, pensiero,’ either. Again, that serious look.” That’s a word I’ve since heard Muti use to describe his young acolyte. “È bravo,” the celebrated conductor said. “È serio.”
“You can pick up technical moves watching a great maestro,” Kennedy says. “I’ve done that sometimes, quite deliberately. But most of all, you must learn to harness your own reflexes. That said, I really believe that I learned more in the 10 days I spent working on Nabucco in Milan than I ever did at any ‘institution’ previously. Why? Because I learned about music. The essence of music. What it means to be a musician and what it means to be a musician in today’s world. Listening to what Muti said about music in Milan and hearing him conduct, I realized why I became a musician in the first place. Music can’t be separated from our everyday existence. It’s there for everyone. So often we forget, maybe conductors especially, why we make music. Muti brought back to me what music can mean and its power to change everyone’s life. As he so truly said, conducting is a humanitarian art.”
The life so short, the craft so long to learn. For a maestro in waiting, there’s no roadmap, no timetable. The readiness is all. Exactly a year after Nabucco, as Muti initiates a new class of his academicians into the mysteries of the Verdi Requiem (Dec. 2-15), Kennedy is on the job at La Monnaie in Brussels, assisting the conductor Bassem Akiki in preparations for On Purge Bébé (“Baby’s Laxative”), the farcical swan song of the late Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans in its premiere production (Dec. 13-29).
The Belgian job came Kennedy’s way thanks to his season-long appointment as staff conductor at Wrocław Opera, in southwestern Poland, where Akiki, 39, is music director. And Kennedy landed that job after hundreds of mostly unacknowledged cold queries.
“We’d been looking,” says Mariusz Kwiecień, the international star baritone from Kraków who took over in 2020 as Wrocław’s artistic director. “You see a promising candidate and immediately you take a chance.” And it was in Wrocław, with a revival of Don Giovanni, that Kennedy conducted his first full-length, fully staged evening of opera on Oct. 1 and 2.
Charging the footlights with the cast at curtain calls, a beaming fashion plate in white tie, he looked every inch the coming maestro for a new generation. And it wasn’t just a question of optics. A tight rehearsal schedule notwithstanding, both evenings scored high on dynamism and character. Every shot counts; impressively, continuity on the second night showed a marked advance. In the New Year, two Bizets — Carmen and Les pêcheurs de perles — are on Kennedy’s Wrocław docket, as well as a two-evening Trittico-Plus (Tetrattico?) that will mix and match Puccini’s familiar Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi with Karol Szymanowski’s Hagith, likewise in a single act.
It’s an article of faith at conservatories in our time that a player in the classical field needs entrepreneurship, networking, and self-direction every bit as much as artistic excellence. The lesson has not been lost on Kennedy, who since graduating from college and during the pandemic has put himself out there in the obligatory master classes and competitions as well as serving informally as assistant to established conductors, coming in handy at rehearsals and recording sessions.
In a more sustained and ambitious effort, Kennedy also founded and served from 2017 to 2021 as music director of the new Resonate Symphony Orchestra (now inactive), with which he performed major Beethoven, Bruckner, Shostakovich, and Wagner at the historic church of St. John Smith’s Square, London. On the one hand, the concerts offered exposure to dedicated musicians on the cusp of professional careers; on the other hand, they raised funds for charities close to Kennedy’s heart, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research.
“I learned so much with Resonate,” Kennedy says. “I acted as fundraiser, box-office manager, orchestral librarian, stage manager, marketing manager, and finally conductor! It gave me a completely different understanding of how a concert hall works.” Not to speak of the joy and the challenge of actualizing one’s musical conceptions in real time rather than merely in one’s head, on one’s own recognizance and to the best of one’s own abilities and those of one’s players. (Like politics, music is an art of the possible.)
In parallel with all this, Kennedy also carved out a niche for himself as events secretary for the Wagner Society in London. A devotee since his early teens, when a teacher took him to hear a transformative Siegfried by Opera North in Birmingham, Kennedy managed during lockdown to wrangle a Who’s Who of Wagnerian conductors, directors, and singers for some 100 live events on Zoom.
At the same time, the study of scores is never-ending. Kennedy’s somewhat intimidating symphonic repertoire list runs from the Harmonielehre of John Adams to Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra by way of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, selected symphonies of Dvořák, Schubert, and Sibelius, Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, and much more. According to his biography on his agent’s website, Kennedy reads Russian novels in his spare time. When might that be?
Certainly not when he has the chance to apprentice himself, whether as observer or mentee, to the grand sorcerers. A hand-delivered letter to Christian Thielemann, at 63 the preeminent Wagnerian of his generation, led to an open invitation to rehearsals and performances (not just of Wagner), first in Salzburg, then in Bayreuth, Berlin, Dresden, and Milan. The rules of engagement were simple: “Ask me anything you like,” said Thielemann, whose passions also extend, as Kennedy’s do, to literature and art. For insight into bel canto and French romantic style, Kennedy has read scores with Richard Bonynge, now 92, at his library in Les Avants, outside Montreux.
And since the Nabucco sessions, he has repeatedly come around to train his eyes and ears on Muti, 81, as he probes the notes for the essence that lies beyond.
At the Chicago rehearsals for Beethoven’s Ninth in February, it puzzled another young conductor who had parachuted in to observe that Kennedy left his study score in his satchel. Rather than keeping eyes glued to the page, Kennedy was assimilating Muti’s communication with the orchestra and chorus in all its many aspects: his way of explaining things, his gestures, eye contact more electric than words, and body language. In June, Kennedy returned for Muti’s rehearsals and concert performances of Verdi’s paradoxically scintillating tragedy Un ballo in maschera.
“My visits to Chicago were a beautiful extension of the experience I had in Milan,” Kennedy said. “Seeing Muti at work was really a case of ‘practice what you preach.’ Lots of conducting pedagogues don’t. But there, at 80 plus, there Muti was, setting the example of how a conductor can inspire, teach, guide, and ultimately lead an orchestra. Even now, he told me, he studies his scores for a couple of hours every morning before rehearsal. He never stops exploring, never stops discovering. In the operas, he keeps driving home the symbiosis of text and music and unity of style — bedrock considerations too many people never bother about at all. For many of us, Muti is the last of the great Verdi interpreters. Others say there are many new and exciting Verdians, and there’s truth in that, too. But whatever new historic information the scholars may dig up, Muti’s combination of intellect, experience, and unsurpassable musicianship remain unique.”
One hates to think about it, but the shamans aren’t with us forever. Kennedy doesn’t forget that every encounter with his mentors has been a gift — or that the more his calendar fills up with engagements of his own, the harder it will be to slot in more facetime with the greats, until the time comes when they are gone.
“And now, I feel I need them even more,” he said. “In November, weeks after my first Don Giovanni in Wrocław, Muti did Don Giovanni in Torino. With more performances coming up in the New Year, it would have meant everything to me to be there to learn and listen, because now that I’ve conducted it myself, my head is fuller than ever with questions. But right now, my work is elsewhere.”
Time moves so slowly, or it moves so fast. And the path grows lonelier. “In interviews and in person,” Kennedy notes, “Muti keeps saying that he comes from a world that is gone and that his time is now at an end. I agree with the first part, but I hope he’s wrong about the second. If I can pass along even one percent of what he has taught me, his values of integrity, principle, and ethics in music and through music will be the key.”