Meet Elisa Citterio: Tafelmusik’s New Music Director

Toronto-based Baroque orchestra and chamber choir Tafelmusik is preparing for a huge change: its first new music director in 35 years. After a remarkable run with violinist Jeanne Lamon, the ensemble is poised to welcome Italian violinist Elisa Citterio as its new leader at her debut performance in the role on September 21. Citterio comes from both the orchestral and chamber-music worlds, and has served as concertmaster and soloist with the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala di Milano and as a member of the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Her discography includes more than 35 recordings, and she has co-chaired the Baroque violin-studies program at Civica Scuola di Musica Claudio Abbado in Milan for two seasons. Citterio took some time to share a few thoughts about her new role with Strings.

—Megan Westberg

In your work so far with Tafelmusik, what qualities do you feel define it as a group? What makes it special?

In my artistic career to date I’ve collaborated with different musical groups and organizations, ranging from duo recitals to majestic productions with great orchestras. I’ve been able to observe the way in which musicians relate to each other, how they organize and promote their work, how they collaborate. I can say with certainty that Tafelmusik represents a rare example of its kind. The musicians are all extremely active, both in terms of their professional research as well as within the organization itself.

Each musician has a specific area of expertise that complements those of others: one musician may prefer to supervise education projects, another may oversee chamber music, and yet another may be in charge of researching scores and creative programs, and so on. In this way, each musician is able to leverage his or her potential to the highest level, and the work doesn’t rest on the shoulders of any one person. During my trial period for the music director position and even now, I’ve been assisted every step of the way in order to deepen my understanding of the complex structure of Tafelmusik and its history. Right from the very first project, I was struck by the amazing collaborative spirit, which I believe is what makes Tafelmusik truly special.

Why do you want to be its music director?

The role includes many responsibilities, only a part of which are executive duties. This will be a debut of sorts for me in terms of programming an entire season, or attending board and management meetings. I led a group for several years, but my role focused mainly on consultation and execution; the programming was discussed with the artistic director and I would contribute a few ideas to complete existing projects. In reality, as I mentioned earlier, I’m conscious of the fact that I will not be left to make these decisions for Tafelmusik in isolation. For me, the key word in taking on this role is “collaboration.” Of course, as music director I have the responsibility of making the final decisions, but I would like to think that the process of arriving at that point involves that spirit of sharing and dialogue between all the members.

What are you most excited about in accepting this role?

Tafelmusik is celebrating its 40th anniversary soon, and though the organization wears its age with utmost elegance, the years have been densely packed with projects, recordings, ideas, and endless pages of music. All of this experience resides within the musicians, who share their knowledge with each other and pass it along like a legacy that is bestowed upon each new member. I know that I have a lot to learn from all of them, and in turn I hope to bring them 25 years of musical experience drawn from my heart and my mind.


How will your experience in Accademia della Scala and the orchestra of La Scala inform your approach with Tafelmusik?

The orchestra at La Scala and Tafelmusik are almost exact opposites, however my experience in one of the world’s most prestigious venues represents a fundamental shift in my musical journey. I’ve learned so much playing dozens of operas and ballets with internationally renowned singers and dancers, and under the guidance of excellent conductors. In a large orchestra, rhythmic and musical discipline are fundamental, and everyone’s expertise is determined by the ability to perform their specific role precisely. The voice reigns supreme, a guide and precious jewel to protect; it provides an example to follow by shaping the sound on the words of the text.

Starting with the very first musical texts, instruments have developed their phrasing by imitating the voice’s sound, warmth, and words. After many years of playing opera, sometimes I find that I crave the sound of human voice when playing orchestral works, regardless of how emotional or well-written the music is. Every sound I have produced and experienced in the theatre, from the simplest Monteverdi score to the most complex Wagner opera, have remained in my heart and have enriched my yearning for aural exploration and emotional expression. I hope to bring all of this experience to Tafelmusik.

How does it feel to become the second-ever music director of this ensemble? Are there challenges in assuming a leadership role when that role has been occupied by one person for such a long time?

Jeanne is the cornerstone—she is an essential benchmark. Her work with Tafelmusik is unequaled and she leaves an immeasurable legacy. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with her personally, and her wisdom shines through with every word. I can’t deny that I am extremely moved to assume the music director role after her, and I don’t expect to be able to compare with her immense experience as a leader. But I am eager to learn from her as much as possible and to add all of this to my depth of experience. I hope to create something new that will help Tafelmusik expand its potential even further.

Stylistically, how good a match are you with the ensemble right now and how much evolution do you anticipate as you work together?

I’ve played four projects with Tafelmusik so far. A mixed Baroque program, Handel Water Music, a Haydn Symphony, and Medée by Charpentier—a lot of different styles and changing ensemble dimensions. In the first program, I was so surprised to see the musicians paying meticulous attention to my comments and noting my observations in their parts. And in the second program, I had a lot of fun changing the dynamics spontaneously in concert: the musicians were completely ready to respond! Certainly it will take a while to get to know each other more and develop our collective voice. I’d like that to be defined by a very high technical level, but also deeply passionate playing.


What role will you take in Tafelmusik’s educational programs?

At the moment a member of the orchestra, Geneviève Gilardeau, is taking care of planning a new educational project, which I expect to be ready soon. I think the educational aspect of our work is vitally important to our future. Young people are potential audience members, emerging musicians themselves, and, who knows, even future members of the orchestra! I hope to find more opportunities for inviting young and very young audience members to our rehearsals and concerts.

Are you anticipating any particular challenges or planning any big changes?

Tafelmusik is already an excellent orchestra so I don’t envision any fundamental changes. There are some initiatives I have in mind, such as recordings, tours to countries not often visited, important guest artists for our Toronto season, introducing some “experimental” ideas to our concerts, more educational events, exploring new repertoire from the Galante, Classical, and Romantic periods, and reaching out to new audiences in Toronto.

In a world increasingly focused on the new, how do you draw audiences to Baroque music? What is it about Baroque music that you feel transcends time?


I will give you a couple of examples: In the first prehistoric paintings and artifacts, we sometimes see depictions of rudimentary instruments. This affirms that music has always been a primary human need. In addition, there are certain characteristics that connect music from the beginning to the present day. For example, the first dances have a sort of repeated bass line (called ostinato) and an improvised melody that are quite close to jazz traditions (the biggest differences are the instruments used and sounds). But an important feature of Baroque music is its relative simplicity when compared to, for example, Romantic era works.

I think about how we are continually surprised and fascinated looking at monumental historical works like Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Eiffel tower, the architecture in Venice, or Roman churches . . . We will still enjoy listening to Baroque music in the future: the old and the new need each other. The new is informed by the old, and the old offers a constant source of inspiration.

What offerings in the 2017–18 season are closest to your heart—what are you most looking forward to?

The whole season is very exciting! I am greatly looking forward to performing so many different concerts with the orchestra and choir. I can’t wait to play with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, as well as with conductor Bruno Weil for the first time. I am excited about our Italian Baroque program, and the newest multimedia project by Tafelmusik bassist Alison Mackay, Safe Haven, which is about the musical ideas of Baroque Europe’s refugee artists.

It will be a year of new experiences for me, full of changes and learning.

For more about Tafelmusik, read the feature: Tafelmusik: A Study in Staying Power—with Changes Ahead.