Often the most interesting nuggets of interviews arrive when questioning dissolves into chatting. “Sorry, that previous answer was a bit wishy-washy,” Robin Ticciati says on reflection: Following the tenor David Butt Philip’s recent Times of London interview, where he advised young UK singers to head abroad for the betterment of their careers post-Brexit, I’d asked Ticciati whether the same applies to budding UK conductors. (He countered that previous routes still apply.) “The reason why I was slightly vague about my answer is due to the fact I was extremely lucky as a young conductor,” he says.
Ticciati’s mentorships with Simon Rattle and Colin Davis, both of whom he met while a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, do follow the traditional, less formal route of conductor training: getting onside with a maestro or two and seeing what happens. But there can be no doubting Ticciati’s work ethic, which has propelled him to principal positions at Glyndebourne and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. That workaholic energy is a trait that he admits has tipped into overwork; in 2016, a slipped disc in his back put him out of action for months, and genuinely threatened his future in the form.
The four-concert “Music and Healing” festival in Berlin is an intriguing moment then: Ticciati is determined to expand to more than a personal exposition, with searching questions posed constantly. Spread over two weekends in March, it approaches the subject from various angles—in themed concerts and a range of lectures from music psychologists—and a vast array of big repertoire, including “…towards a Pure Land” by Jonathan Harvey, Harrison Birtwistle’s “Panic,” Act III of “Tristan,” “The Rite of Spring,” and Alexander Scriabin’s “Le Poème de l’Extase” all conducted by Ticciati. I spoke with him over the phone from his home in Sussex, England, a few days before the festival.
VAN: Where did this idea for a mammoth healing session come from?
Robin Ticciati: Critically, this is not a healing session. The four programs and talks are designed to raise more awareness. The initial idea was partly born out of a lazy use of wording. I would come along to Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester concerts and so often say, “Music! Isn’t it such a healing force?” And then one day I said, “Gosh, what do I mean by that?” I know what I feel, but what do I mean?” I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to try and open up a forum of talks and certain pieces, and bring people together just to talk about the power that music can have on one’s physical health, on the soul. It was born out of that: a feeling that I’m being too romantic and that we should investigate this with the help of people that know.
In that regard, the program is question-heavy, and outward looking, but it’s also got a fair amount of inner searching too, particularly in the composers you’ve programmed. I wondered if any impetus for the festival stemmed from your particular personal experiences with music and healing?
It wasn’t conscious, but there’s one thing I remember from when I had my back operation. There was a feeling, Ah, I’m not going to be able to conduct again. It’s so debilitating you can’t process things beyond that.
I hadn’t even got to the hospital at that point. I was stretched out on the hotel floor, listening to the second movement of a Mozart violin concerto, and tears were rolling down my face, feeling it so strongly. That is maybe a moment about the relationship that music has with the way your body and mind works, and how it can get you through things. Every piece in the festival is intrinsically linked with an idea connected with healing: whether the pain before or the transfiguration afterwards.
Articles like this, straight to your inbox
There’s a particularly popular sub-genre of classical music that’s specifically for healing and relaxation. I wondered how you felt about classical music being instrumentalized in such a way? The thing that I found interesting about this program is that it entertains these ideas without necessarily guiding the audience too closely. (You don’t see too many Yoga with Birtwistle playlists around.)
I have no bad feelings per se about someone creating some list of classical music that is meant to be relaxing or meditative. The problem is where people think that that is the only thing that classical music does. Like, “Let’s put on some Mozart or some Baroque thing that we can zone out to.” A sedative. Actually, classical music is just the opposite of zoning out. Also the idea of healing: That world is an active world. The world of mindfulness is something to be engaged with, and not something that we should let “waft over.”
That leads us to the heat and the Dionysian power of [Harrison Birtwistle’s] “Panic,” and the raw emotions of “The Rite of Spring” in a sense. (The girl is sacrificed to propitiate spring; that business was an act of healing in a mythical sense.) I tried to create contrast as well; this festival isn’t about people coming and sitting down, falling asleep, waking up and feeling better. The festival is not to heal. The festival is to generate dialogue. Tuvan throat singing, Bach cantatas, Dowland… all the pieces play off one another.
How do you heal? You seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like someone who heals through doing rather than through resting.
I need to rest a great deal. What comes to my mind is a beautiful thing that is always influenced by my brother [Hugo, who performs Arvo Pärt and Pēteris Vasks as part of the festival], who just says “chipping away,” he’s just chipping away. And that can come in, in many, many, many guises.
When you look back today, do you think you’ve fallen foul of overworking in the past?
Definitely and I am always learning. Something that’s really wonderful is to become more aware, full stop. This idea of awareness is also about why we go into the concert hall: the ability to stop looking at a phone, at a screen, and actually be in the present moment and not grasp ahead or define oneself or one’s experiences from the past. And I think that’s quite an interesting thing to make people aware of: the concert hall as a cathedral.
It feels like the ground has shifted with regards to opera in the UK at the moment. What’s it like to head up a big opera festival when the so-called “grand opera” tradition is looking a bit threatened?
I think the beauty is that Glyndebourne has never seen itself as a “grand opera” kind of place. It has prided itself on the integrity of the work, and the way the artists confront the work (with the rehearsal period, the type of directors, the type of singers that come). So planning with [Artistic Director] Stephen Langridge at the moment feels like a big opportunity rather than a threatened art form.
Of course, there are financial constraints hitting everyone. But artistically, the thing in the room is: OK, where do we go from here? What do we want to give people? How do we challenge them? How do we make them feel comfortable? The incredible thing about that building and that space led by [executive chairman] Gus and the Christie family, is that there’s always been this dogged determination of getting art out to people in wonderful ways.
But surely—with the cuts to the Glyndebourne tour, for example—regardless of what’s happening artistically, that’s a logistical concern?
One doesn’t need to be living in the UK to realize that it’s so blind, blind-sighted, in the way that culture is treated and not given a fair chance.
But Glyndebourne is always trying to make the best of the situation and go, “OK, we can’t tour, this is financially impossible.” So all the talent that came up through the Tour, how do we keep that alive, how do we further that? [In the fall, Glyndebourne will showcase rising artists from initiatives such as Glyndebourne Youth Opera, the Jerwood Young Artist program, and Glyndebourne Academy.—Ed.]
Looking at the Music and Healing program, you conduct Act III of “Tristan,” the “Rite,” Scriabin, the Berg Violin Concerto… I originally thought it was over four nights, but instead it’s over two weekends. In a previous life, might you have tackled all that in one go?
No, not even in my previous self. Even for my present self, it’s a big undertaking, but it’s a good one. The wonderful thing about the DSO is that in their DNA, they’ve got this wild streak in them where they see a challenge and say, “Yes, yes, please.” And that’s a Berlin trait. It’s always the extraordinary that gets people fired up; it’s always the big challenge that seems insurmountable. Where there is integrity, there is openness. That is Berlin and DSO.
You’ve built a career out of doing lots of different repertoire. Are there any avenues that you’re particularly interested in going down in the next couple of years?
Having conducted “Tristan” two years ago, with “Parsifal” coming later in 2025, and all the time I have spent with German symphony orchestras and their approach to sound, I know I will spend a lot of time with Wagner operas over the next few years.
So I think that’s one avenue. Another is the early 19th-century style of Weber, Brahms… that whole area with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I’m in dialogue with Mark Simpson for wonderful commissions, and finding these contemporary composers that really make me excited, which makes me think that I can get an audience excited.
It’s still a lot of everything. But honed: honed with care, time, proper preparation and collaboration. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.