Gianandrea Noseda, 54, ushers a visitor into his spotless Kennedy Center office. As the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, he has a large room that is, at the moment, minimal in its decor: walls bare, shelves empty. The sole personal touch is a gleaming silver espresso machine, courtesy of the Italian coffee company Lavazza, and even that is more than just an expression of personal taste. Lavazza has sponsored Noseda’s work in the past and, now that he’s here, has landed the Kennedy Center coffee franchise: There are Lavazza machines in food service areas throughout the building. ¶ A music director is the public face of an orchestra. He or she sets the course of programming, oversees auditions for new players, meets donors and attends fundraising events and tries, however he or she can, to establish a significant presence in the community. And yet Noseda’s bare office bears witness to another salient fact of the job: The music director is hardly ever here.
Noseda’s face is plastered on posters all over the Kennedy Center to let people know a new era has begun. But on May 20, when he leaves Washington after his final subscription concerts of his inaugural season, he will have been here for eight weeks since September. Next season, he will increase his presence to 12 weeks. That’s not unusual for a major music director. Christoph Eschenbach, Noseda’s predecessor, was never at the NSO for more than 10 weeks a season. At least Noseda and his wife, Lucia, have gotten an apartment in Washington; many international music directors, like Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony, live in hotels. (Noseda’s home, when he’s there, is on Lago Maggiore, in Italy; he also has an apartment in Milan.)
Lucia Noseda has plans for redecorating the bare office. It will take careful strategizing, since she travels with her husband, and they’re always on the road. Since January, Noseda has conducted the Orchestre de Paris, the orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and the London Symphony Orchestra in Warsaw and London, as well as runs of “Salome” and “Turandot” in Turin, Italy. After his NSO appearances in April, he went to Israel for seven performances around that country with the Israel Philharmonic. When he leaves Washington in May, he’ll go to New York to conduct the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra before leaving with the London Symphony Orchestra on a tour of the Far East.
“I think the most tiring part of our lives is traveling,” Noseda says. “If I would be able to be here and in Israel without travel, I would not have any problem conducting every single day.”
If a conductor’s job is hard for the uninitiated to understand — what exactly does she do up there beyond wave her arms? — a music director’s job can be even more so. The idea that someone so vital to an organization is not a full-time resident of the city, and may even have another music directorship or two elsewhere, seems counterintuitive. Of course, there are orchestras whose music directors are full-time residents: Marin Alsop has settled in Baltimore; Miguel Harth-Bedoya lives in Fort Worth. Harth-Bedoya has always, in fact, moved to the city where he works, starting with his first post in Eugene, Ore., in 1996. “Everybody says I was nuts,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It has to do with me and how I like to live my life.”
But even Harth-Bedoya, who is unusual in the field for being a homebody, has a second post: He is principal conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. For a music director of stature, having more than one ensemble is the norm. Once conductors attain such a position, and the better their work is known, they become all the more sought-after by other ensembles. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is now the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Orchestra, as well as his home orchestra in Montreal, and is about to take over at the Metropolitan Opera. This season, Andris Nelsons assumed the chief post at the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany, a role he already holds with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the two orchestras have launched a new collaboration, in part to reassure audiences and donors of the maestro’s continued commitment to each. Jaap van Zweden, the music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, is music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.
And Noseda, until recently, was the music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, an opera house with orchestra, a position in which he invested 11 years. In April, however, the regional government appointed a new general director to head the Teatro Regio — European orchestras and opera houses are for the most part subsidized by the state, and subject to state control — and after a planned U.S. tour was canceled (which was to have brought the ensemble to the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall), Noseda regretfully resigned. He remains the principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra. And now that he’s no longer with Turin, it’s likely, given his current level of acclaim, that some other institution will grab him up.
Orchestral seasons were shorter in the 1950s: It’s hard to expect someone today to stick around for an entire year. Too, with the plethora of music and musicians out there, variety is more appealing: Audiences want to see more than one conductor, and it’s good for musicians to be exposed to different styles. However, this has led to a multicity, jet-setting lifestyle for major musicians that’s difficult to sustain. It’s up to the individuals to figure out how they are going to survive it.
“The crucial thing,” Noseda says, “is to build up a team that you trust.” Noseda’s main team numbers three people. There’s Lucia, whom he met when they were music students. She oversees the practical concerns of their daily life, but she is often a sounding-board about musical matters. There’s his manager, Ettore Volontieri, with whom he has an unusually long-standing relationship. “After 20 years of working with him,” Noseda says, “we are really like brothers.” And there’s his longtime publicist, Lawrence Perelman. Then, there are the administrative teams of the various companies with which he works, and the organizational skills it takes to keep track of administrative details, personnel issues, programming — and a very large amount of music.
“I’m discovering me more and more,” Noseda says, laughing. “I am incredibly disciplined.”
Just keeping track of all the music he’s leading is a major challenge. Learning scores occupies significant parts of the schedule — especially on airplanes, where many musicians appreciate the opportunity for hours of uninterrupted focus. This season, he learned the score for John Adams’s “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” which he conducted for the first time in April in Washington, in a single week, while he was in Rome conducting the Accademia of Santa Cecilia. Since the concerts were in the evening, he says, “I had all the day,” and then “I had a fantastic long flight, and in the flight I learned half of the second part.” Learning a score means not only familiarizing yourself with the music but also figuring out what you want to hear in it, establishing the through lines and tempo changes and balances so that you arrive at rehearsal knowing exactly what you want. “When you come here, you have four rehearsals,” Noseda says: That’s the norm for an American orchestra. “You cannot try [that is, experiment]. In your mind should be very clear what to do.”
Even a work as familiar as the Verdi Requiem, which he knows by heart, requires refreshing before a performance. “It is good for the soul to reopen the score,” Noseda says. “And most of the time, good music surprises you. You can still find an element you never noticed. . . . ‘I’ve done this probably 50 times in my life, and I’ve never seen this. . . .’ I don’t feel comfortable to stand in front of the orchestra if I have not reopened the score.”
Last summer, Noseda was sidelined for two months after emergency back surgery — a wake-up call, he now says, reminding him to be more careful about his own life balance. If anything, it has made him even more disciplined. Now, he is incorporating exercise into his daily routine, often as soon as he wakes up: “before putting my legs down from the bed, I do these exercises in bed.” He saves time for a few weeks’ vacation every year, something that has never before been part of his professional life. His voice softens when he talks about plans to visit Lucia’s family in Sicily this summer, and take a driving tour of parts of Italy he hasn’t seen.
When he’s not on vacation, he keeps the template of his days as much the same as he can: “Normal life,” he says. If he has to learn music, he spends an hour or two on it before breakfast; after breakfast, more often than not, it’s off to rehearsal. For orchestra, there are four or five rehearsals within the course of a week, with breaks carefully mandated by union contract. For a new opera production — like “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Met next season — the rehearsal period is four to six weeks, and the process “is more complex,” he says, involving as it does singers, choruses, stage directors, designers and, relative to an orchestra, an even larger cadre of stage hands. Not every major conductor is willing to devote this kind of time; opera remains a particular specialty for those who love it, and Noseda is one of the few who goes back and forth between both worlds.
Apart from actual music-making, his day is taken up with dozens of other concerns. The NSO has been holding auditions all season for various vacancies; at least five new members will be announced in the coming months, and Noseda oversees the final round of all. There is planning future concerts, undertaken with the NSO’s director of artistic planning, Nigel Boon — not only for upcoming seasons but also for various other events, like the “NSO in Your Neighborhood” appearances that orchestra members recently made during the SHIFT festival. There are meals with donors; an American orchestra must raise the money for most of its operating budget from donors and foundations. There are interviews with journalists. There are personnel issues to be resolved. An orchestra, Noseda says, “is a small example of society. Sometimes there are frictions and sometimes not. But the most important thing: You have to deal with all these things in your personal way. . . . You have to be approachable. If people want to talk to you, they should feel free to come.”
If he can get back to the apartment for lunch with Lucia, he does. If he doesn’t make it back until afternoon, he says, they have a cup of tea together — “my heritage I got from my years in Manchester,” where he was first principal guest and then chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, from 2001 to 2011. In Washington, home is an apartment in Foggy Bottom, a 10- or 15-minute walk from the Kennedy Center. In other cities, it may be a hotel suite.
Nights, for a conductor, are peak work hours. Many of them are spent on the podium, in concert; many others are spent at dinners and other functions. Nights are also a prime time to work on learning music. But when there is free time, he and Lucia may go out to dinner — especially in New York, where the chef Lidia Bastianich is among their close friends. Or, they may stay home, cook for each other and — listen to music. Not pop, not jazz, but classical; and not purely for pleasure, either. It’s the only time he has to listen to music he doesn’t already know, music he might someday conduct.
Another part of the routine is touring, which upsets the regular routine with a routine of its own.
“What is very demanding when you tour with any orchestra,” Noseda says, “is the fact that you take a limited repertoire, and you repeat it, sometimes 10 times.” You have to find ways not to get bored with the same programs: to make each concert exciting for the new audience that will hear it. And you have to play a concert almost every night. “With the established orchestras,” Noseda says, meaning professional orchestras like the London Symphony, with which he’s doing the Far East tour in June, “it depends very much on the conductor to motivate [them]; if I’m tired, that means they are tired, too.” The picture is a little different for his upcoming tour later in the summer with the European Union Youth Orchestra, players between 18 and 24. “With the youngsters,” he says, “it’s fun, because they are full of energy: They keep you up . . . [If] you come a little bit tired, they smile to you, they say good things, they start to sing. You immediately feel like you are a teenager again.”
Does it take a special kind of brain to be a music director? Ivan Fischer, for two years the NSO’s principal conductor, used to pride himself on being able to read one score while conducting another. Noseda is cut from different cloth.
“I’m not a multitasker, as my wife is,” he says. “She can do two things at the same moment. I cannot. But so far, I have a good memory — just cross my fingers. And there’s also this ability to learn and not lose interest in learning new things. If I become lazy and think, ‘Oh, come on, it’s enough now,’ because it’s a tough job to learn new things —’ ” He gestures with a hand: I’m done. “But I like it. I like it, because I think there I found the truth those big geniuses, [the composers,] tried to put on the paper. Their truth, their message and what they wanted to convey. Is fascinating, because it seems to me I’m touching gold.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Torino's opera house. It is the Teatro Regio, not the Teatro Reggio.