In anticipation of its 50th season, Boston Baroque has announced the appointment of Filippo Ciabatti as the ensemble’s first assistant conductor. The Director of Orchestral and Choral Programs at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College as well as the Artistic Director of the Upper Valley Baroque Ensemble, Ciabatti won the 2020 American Prize in Conducting (college/university division). He trained in Italy and at the University of Illinois Urbana / Champaign, and he has also conducted opera companies and orchestras in South America and Europe. BMInt’s interviewer Mark Dirksen Zoomed with Ciabatti and Boston Baroques’ leader Martin Pearlman about what’s ahead for Boston Baroque.
MD: Filippo, I know you’ve been on the East Coast for several years now directing the orchestra and choirs at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, but it will be great to have you in Boston on a regular basis. Tell us a bit about your upbringing in Florence and training in Italy.
FC: I was born in Florence where I actually am in this moment. I began my career studying piano when I was young and then began to conduct choirs as well. Most importantly, I always loved playing for singers and also found it was a fabulous experience as a conductor for what you learn about listening and about being flexible.
The music scene in Florence was very vibrant. The Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini had a wonderful early music program led by Alfonso Fedi, an organist and harpsichordist who was a student of Gustave Leonhardt and I had a chance to observe and study there. My own teacher Fabio Lombardo has an early music ensemble in Florence called L’Homme Armé and that was one of my first experiences as well.
Yes, exactly. Then there was an opportunity for me to move to the United States to further my studies and that brought me then to the University of Illinois where continued my studies in conducting and from there started my American life and career.
Indeed. Martin, how did you how did you get connected with Filippo? Where did you hear about him?
MP: Oh well, you know, it’s funny. As you may know, we just came up to our 50th Anniversary at Boston Baroque and one of the things that came up with the Board of Directors was the fact that I have been doing this for 50 years and never missed a concert. And some people thought, ‘Oh, how wonderful!’ and others thought, ‘Well, we ought to have some kind of backup.’
So we started talking about assistant conductors, and looked first online at several possible people and Filippo to me was the standout obvious person of those. Then we got together and just the combination of his experience and his work, and what we could see and hear, and his personality fit very well with us, and so that was that.
That’s a wonderful thing and a great opportunity, I don’t mean necessarily even in the professional sense but for him to be able to sit with Boston Baroque under your leadership and just soak it in and really be a part of the organization. It sounds like a really good situation.
Yes, we are looking forward to it, and the position will necessarily grow and develop as we work together.
You have done a fair amount of opera conducting, and I was looking through Boston Baroque’s lengthy and distinguished discography and wondered: Have you ever done fully staged productions?
Well, it’s a difficult question to answer because a lot of the singers that sing with us, say these are fully staged. We have a stage director and they’re actually fully acted more than some operas that are on a stage. It is a hybrid: the orchestra is on the stage so they’re part of the action in a way, and we tend nowadays to use projections is rather than real scenery.
We have done collaborations. For example back in 1981 we did Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea for the first Boston Early Music Festival, and them some Gluck and Handel with Opera Boston when it was around.
I gravitated to opera because Filippo did a lot of opera in Champaign, Illinois, where I got to know him.
FC: Yes, Martin and I immediately connected talking about opera and that started really when I was in Florence, playing for singers and opera companies. So I was always immersed in that world and also because opera is still very important in Italy. And in Illinois I was also working with the Opera department. Julie and Nathan Gunn were the directors of the Lyric Opera there and gave me a lot of opportunities to do fully staged productions including Don Giovanni. I’m very excited to learn this with Martin Pearlman because it closes Boston Baroque’s upcoming season.
Yes, indeed, and you know I’ll be there for that. Just for fun Filippo, I happen to remember a night after a choir rehearsal when you sat down and played most of the second act of The Magic Flute, all from memory and singing all the parts, including Queen of the Night.
MP: So you see, it’s not just a matter of whether I’m indisposed one day but if any of our singers are he can just sing a part. [laughter]
What are you particularly proud of these past eight or ten years for Boston Baroque? I’ve been out of town, so I’m kind of curious for you to look back over your shoulder a little bit. And I think Filippo might like to hear that too.
I guess a couple things come to mind. One, is the level of the orchestra is something I’m always trying to build. It’s always a work in progress but I think it’s gotten to a very good level. That’s one, and the other is when the pandemic came along and so many institutions were in trouble, we turned to something that we had thought about for quite a while and never really done, which is streaming concerts.
The first year, you know, we really couldn’t even get a full orchestra together because of the contagion, but the second year we did play concerts. We had mask requirements and so on, but we started streaming from the big WGBH TV studio. I guess it’s two seasons we’ve done this now and I just saw the report which kind of surprised me: We have ticket buyers in 55 countries on six continents but if you look at all the media, including YouTube and Spotify, it’s 117 countries. So it’s something that we’re going to obviously continue as we go back into concert halls.
Filippo, you’ve been active since you came East – how long ago was that?
FC: Seven years ago.
Yes, very active with Dartmouth College but you’re also connected with a Baroque company up there as well. Tell us a little more about that.
Yes, it’s called Upper Valley Baroque because it’s based in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont. We just ended our second season this year with a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. It’s devoted to the performance of Baroque music with original instruments. The community is very excited about it and has reacted very well.
And of course we’re lucky that Boston is within reach so we have wonderful musicians that can come and play with us, and some of them play in Boston Baroque.
Some ancient history here, but Pearlman’s recording of the Vespers was groundbreaking, one of the most influential recordings of the 80s and 90s.
I believe it was, and if I may say, it was also influential to me as I was preparing to conduct the piece for the first time.
What was your reaction to it conducting your first go through, Filippo? What did you think of the whole piece?
You know, I was very hesitant to accept when I when I was asked by the board to do this piece because of musical language and the many layers that you have to understand. But then I took the courage and I started studying it. I read a lot and I studied a lot, and I read a lot and I studied a lot, and then at the end I thought to myself, there has to be a first. But just talking for myself, not even about the musical level of the performance, personally it was a wonderfully fulfilling experience just to get to learn this piece.
MP: Can I ask one question that I’m curious about? Did you do the last Magnificat at high pitch or low pitch?
FC: [laughs] We did it a low pitch. Actually the cornetto players said we’re coming, but we’re not going to…
MP: [laughs] Yes, it’s a very difficult part.
FC: [laughs] Yes. I’m curious, when you do it do you find cornetto players in America that want to play a high pitch, or do you bring them in from overseas?
MP: Yes, I did. I mean some of them are older and I’m not sure they can play it at high pitch now, so when we do the piece, we’re going to have to confront that.
FC: Exactly. It’s less and less popular, not as easy perhaps, but it’s very dramatic.
So what do you have planned going forward? Will Filippo be taking the podium at some announced point?
MP: Well, I don’t have a formal statement about that because we’re just evolving this position. I would just say that our situation where we have five programs in a year is very different from an organization that has 12 or 20 or more, with guests and so on. So there’s an identity with a particular personality, and I’ve never brought in guests. We’ll see how it develops and there may be some point where that’ll be a good idea.
That makes sense. The working arrangements you are forming, and the alliances being formed seem entirely positive and we’re looking forward to everything.