By virtue of the nature of their work, conductors blessed with longevity are able to sustain their careers for much longer than singers or even instrumentalists. Even so, many eventually find themselves slowing down their activities, their movements and sometimes even their tempos. At 83, is Alberto Zedda the exception who proves the rule? Despite being the artistic director of the Rossini Festival, he does not conduct very often at Pesaro, though he will direct a concert performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia this month; but he makes guest appearances all over Europe, above all to celebrate the composer who has played such a major part in his life over the past 50 years. And when this slight man (whose wrinkles prompt certain singers to call him ‘Master Yoda’) enters the pit, he exudes energy, strength and dynamism throughout the performance. This is true even when the work in question is being given in its complete version, which, if it is from Rossini’s maturity, can mean something of a marathon: Semiramide, in the critical (and determinedly complete) edition Zedda prepared in collaboration with Philip Gossett, can last more than five hours with intervals, as was the case last winter when the Vlaamse Opera staged the new production by Nigel Lowery, which Zedda will again conduct at this summer’s Edinburgh Festival.
Born in Milan on 2 January 1928 to a family of Sardinian origin, Zedda found his musical destiny shaped by three women, the first being his mother. Though not a musician, she was a woman of sensibility who believed that culture in any form could prove beneficial to personal development. ‘My mother understood that for people of modest means, as we were, culture could open up all sorts of possibilities.’ Second, his elder sister, for whom his parents bought a piano, was given lessons, but also gave her brother access to the instrument so that he could, as Zedda says, pasticciare (mess around). ‘I became friends with that piano. I didn’t take lessons, but I played, I composed, I invented things, drew sounds from it.’ Third, when he was 16 or so, his first love was a girl from a wealthier family and a true musician. The young Alberto could get together with her only at concerts, when she was able to escape the supervision of her parents, who were not in favour of the teenagers’ relationship. ‘It is really thanks to her that I discovered music. And I fell in love with music. The girl in question went off with someone else, but music remained with me.’
While Zedda’s mother encouraged him to take every opportunity to broaden his cultural horizons, his father, a deeply religious office worker who saw artists as a dubious breed, was less enthusiastic about a possible musical career for his son. Finally, he came round to his son’s vocation, because he was a man who had his passions too: ‘My father was passionate about mountains, even becoming a mountain guide. When I was four, he put me on skis, and when I was 17 we climbed the Matterhorn together at a time before everyone started doing it. Mountains give you a different sense of scale, which helped me a great deal when it came to music.’
Zedda is himself a man driven by passions. ‘Even today I still have the enthusiasm of a neophyte. All music excites me, not just my own repertoire. At home, I play Bach, Chopin, Ravel on the piano. This enthusiasm is in me and it becomes energy: that is how I can still conduct today with the same energy I had 40 years ago. I need music, both physically and intellectually. Sometimes people ask me if I take cocaine, but it is music that gives me my strength. The downside is that it makes me a bit disorganized … rather like my education—disorganized, but eclectic.’
While at secondary school, Zedda—who says he was a combination of ‘a child and a research student’ at the time—preferred older company and threw himself into a series of enthusiasms, with varying success. It was hardly surprising that philosophy became his chosen study at university. ‘I would read a book of 300 or 400 pages in a day. I probably didn’t read very thoroughly, but something remained with me. I would like to re-read those books today, but I don’t have time.’ In the postwar years Zedda became one of the few musicians to have a real literary culture, versed as he was in the works of Goethe, Shakespeare, Cervantes and the great philosophers.
In the end, his passion for music won through. After considering a thesis on Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (‘My tutor was keener to steer me towards Hegel,’ he says), Zedda undertook a change of direction. ‘Obviously, I was too old to do anything of value as an instrumentalist, so my options as a musician were to become a composer, a conductor or an impresario. But for any of those I needed to go and study at a conservatory. Now, according to Italian law at the time, I could not get into a conservatory because I was past the age of 18. I went to see the director of the Milan Conservatory, Giorgio Federico Ghedini, who was very pleasant, but very firm: he could not accept my application … I was desperate.’ A few days later, Zedda went to see Ghedini again and threatened to kill himself if he couldn’t become a musician. Ghedini promised to sort something out for him.
The solution came in the form of the organ class, then facing closure because its sole student was reaching the end of his course. To fill the lacuna, Ghedini requested special ministerial permission to enrol Zedda. ‘I had never even seen an organ! But Ghedini told me: “It doesn’t matter! Once you’re in the organ class, you’re in here, and then I’m the one making the decisions. You can spend a year in the organ class, you won’t be wasting time, and then you can transfer to the composition class”.’
Fate would have it that the man in charge of the organ class was not only an organist, but also a conductor. As a refugee in Switzerland during the war, Alceo Galliera, himself the son of an organist, had conducted concerts in Lugano, where he was spotted by Walter Legge, who entrusted him with some of the first recordings made by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Teacher and student established a good relationship, and Zedda learned as much about conducting as about the organ—maybe more. In fact by the end of his first year he no longer wished to leave the organ class, but he also undertook to attend two ‘real’ conducting classes: orchestral conducting, led by Antonino Votto, and orchestral
exercises with Carlo Maria Giulini.
In Votto’s class, the students, lacking an orchestra on which to practise, had to resign themselves to a purely theoretical training, but the conductor would take them to his rehearsals at La Scala. Zedda remembers Callas in La sonnambula (presumably the sessions for the 1957 recording, since there is no trace in the theatre’s archives of a staged performance involving both Votto and La Divina). An orchestra was provided in Giulini’s class, but Zedda, as an organ student, was permitted to be present only as an observer—looking but not touching, so to speak—until one day, when Zedda was alone, Giulini let him take over the podium. So impressive was Zedda that it was once again time for a request for special permission; this time, it was made to the director of the conservatory by Giulini.
Zedda’s years at the conservatory were a happy and enriching time for him. Among the friends he made there were the composers Luciano Berio and Niccolò Castiglioni, several of whose works he later premiered (even today he would still like the opportunity to work on contemporary music), and also Claudio Abbado, whom he has now known for more than 50 years and who has on several occasions played a decisive role in his career. They were friends and also, on many occasions, comrades, since Zedda was for a long time one of the most prominent artistic figures aligned with the Italian Communist Party; like Abbado and Pollini, he made it a mission to take classical music into factories.
Another of Zedda’s striking encounters was with Igor Stravinsky in the summer of 1951, when the composer was at La Scala to prepare for the premiere in Venice that September of The Rake’s Progress. The students of the conservatory did not yet have their passes for La Scala, so the young Zedda staked out Stravinsky’s hotel in Milan until he spotted him one morning. With the score of Petrushka under his arm, Zedda approached Stravinsky and told him of his passion for his music. The composer seemed to be convinced and invited Zedda to go with him. The young conductor attended all the subsequent rehearsals, even chatting with the composer during the breaks.
When Stravinsky left for Venice, Zedda still managed to find his way into as many rehearsals as he could at La Scala until, a few weeks later, he was spotted and thrown out by a less tolerant maestro—Herbert von Karajan, visiting to conduct Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier.Opera was not, however, the focus of Zedda’s early career. Trained as an organist, with Bach and Franck as his points of reference, he even felt a certain scorn for lyric theatre, and particularly for Rossini. In 1957, when he participated in the RAI’s conducting competition, he took first prize for his interpretation of Petrushka, and the first ten years of his career were spent almost exclusively in the symphonic repertoire; but opera, with Rossini at the top of the bill, was waiting for him.