Nicolas Blanmont Zedda conducts Rossini in Pesaro and Edinburgh this month
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.’
Opera, August 2011 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.
■ Home from home: the Teatro Rossini in Pesaro