Ruben Jais
© Studio Hanninen
When Milan’s internationally famous symphony orchestra surveyed residents in Italy and abroad, it realised it was time for a change: La Verdi, as the orchestra was then known, prides itself on its dynamism, creativity and an ability to think outside the box, but in contrast, respondents claimed that its name sounded traditional, recalled Italy’s operatic tradition and made people think of Parma, the city of Verdi’s birth. With that in mind, the orchestra overhauled its branding earlier this month, adopting a new name – the ‘Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano’ – and devising a number of new concert formats.

“Our former name did not represent us very well. We realised what we needed to do was harness ‘Brand Milan’,” explains Ruben Jais, the orchestra’s General Director and Artistic Director, during an interview at its Milan headquarters. “Milan is Italy’s business capital and the country’s most culturally vibrant city. It is always developing, evolving, reacting quickly to change,” he says. “That is what this orchestra has always done, too.”

It will take time for the changes to bed in, Jais anticipates. “Changing names is a huge challenge. The marketing experts told us that it will be two to three years before the public, and even those working for us, to get used to not calling us ‘La Verdi’.”

But Jais is confident the gamble will pay off. “We believe in this transformation. The name is direct, clear and less confusing than before,” he says. “We have embarked on a long journey but it will ultimately give us a boost, bringing us closer to our current audiences, and helping us forge relationships with those who are not yet part of our audiences but could become so.”

Founded in 1993, the Sinfonica di Milano is, along with Sir. Antonio Pappano’s Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, one of Italy’s best loved symphonic outfits. It is known for its performances of big-boned symphonic repertoire, particularly works by Russian composers. Under Riccardo Chailly, music director from 1999 to 2005, the ensemble cultivated an abiding affinity with Mahler’s symphonies.

In a bid to attract new audiences, the Sinfonica di Milano has devised pioneering concert formats, merging the worlds of classical music, pop and science. In the upcoming season, opening in September, it will unveil a new chocolate tasting concert format, deliver three concerts conducted by Andrey Boreyko, the new resident director, and embark on international tours.

One aim is to convince music lovers to return to the concert hall after the pandemic. While music lovers have returned to opera theatres in droves in recent months, Jais says, symphony orchestras are experiencing a slower comeback. “The hall is still not full. We can either wait, or find new ways to stimulate audiences. We’ve chosen the latter route: we can’t just wait for a solution to fall from the sky.”

Alondra de la Parra with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano
© Angelica Concari
The ensemble was founded by Vladimir Delman, the Russian conductor who settled in Italy in the 1970s. Under his guidance, it developed a special affinity for Russian repertoire, including Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Russian works form the backbone of the ensemble’s repertoire to this day. The orchestra has grown in international stature in recent years, a watermark being its Proms debut under then-music director Xian Zhang in 2013.

In Milan, the orchestra’s first base was the Sala Verdi at Milan’s conservatory, the Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Verdi, before it upped sticks to the Teatro Lirico, formerly the famed operatic venue the Teatro della Cannobiana. The ensemble moved on to the Auditorium di Milano, its current home in a former cinema, with a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with Chailly in 1999.

Its name has changed just as frequently. Originally known as the Grande Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, the ensemble became the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi – a reference to the conservatory – which was colloquially shortened to “La Verdi”. The orchestra’s latest name marks a sort of return to its original title, Jais says. “Rather than a step backwards in time, we are returning to our roots. We are also taking a big leap forwards,” he explains.

The orchestra has also adopted a new logo, which features two fractured Ms recalling the shape of the facade of the Duomo di Milano, the city’s most recognisable landmark. The design is partly inspired by Futurist artists, such as Fortunato Depero, who lived and worked in Milan at the turn of the century, Jais explains.

The orchestra’s dynamism and creativity is expressed through their “experimental” approach to programming and outreach, including with family concerts, short programmes for newcomers and a range of amateur and youth ensembles. Such initiatives are more common in countries like Germany and Britain than in Italy, Jais says. “We have favoured a northern European model,” he explains. “There are few symphony orchestras like us in Italy.”

In the “LaVerdi Pops”, the orchestra plays arrangements of pop and rock hits: during a recent concert of pieces by Metallica, Deep Purple and AC/DC, the auditorium was “filled with screaming fans”, Jais recounts. As part of the “Musica e scienza”, another series, a science expert delivers a talk on a theme connected with the pieces in the programme. “We did one concert on black holes,” Jais says. “Half the auditorium was there for the physics, and the other for the music. It meant we could introduce the scientists to Beethoven Five and the music lovers to solar masses.”

Merging science and music in the concert hall
© Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano
A few years ago, the orchestra’s staff took a stroll to Porta Ticinese, Milan’s ancient heartland where teenagers typically congregate around the Roman columns of the Basilica di San Lorenzo. “We went there and spoke with kids who were listening to rock, pop, grunge and ska,” Jais says. “We convinced some to come to the auditorium, where we placed brain helmets on their heads and sat them down for a concert of easy, stirring, loud and happy works.”

“We were able to show them that listening to the music released happy waves in their brains,” he continues. “If you take on people’s classical music scepticism you can overcome it. This is our task in a world filled with easy gratification: we need to be proactive in drawing people closer.”

Upcoming season highlights include concerts of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex conducted by Andrey Boreyko. Alondra de la Parra, the new Principal Guest Conductor, will deliver performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and Symphony no. 5. Jaume Santonja, another new Principal Guest Conductor, will lead performances of Shakespeare in Music, a new commission by composer in residence Silvia Colasanti. Maxime Pascal will conduct Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony with Luca Buratto on the piano.

This season also sees the launch of “Concerti da gustare” (Concerts good enough to eat), a new series in which audience members will be given a small box of chocolates and invited to eat them one by one as they listen to the corresponding movements of selected works. Chef and maître chocolatier Ernst Knam will deliver a talk at the concerts of Schubert, Berio and Beethoven.

“Listening to Knam speak about chocolate is an experience in itself,” Jais anticipates. “He will tell us how he travelled around Central America, how he discovered chocolate of a quality unknown in Europe, how he learned how to treat and use it differently, how he created a world. And if one is led into this world he discovers miracles.”

As Covid restrictions are loosened around the world, the orchestra will resume its international touring schedule this year, with concerts in Amsterdam (at the Concertgebouw), Barcelona, Madrid and Alicante in September, as well as in Lucerne in May. Foreign audiences will discover something both new and familiar, Jais promises. “Rather than transforming our identity, we are becoming more ‘us’. Finally, we have a name that represents us.”

Click here to see future concerts by Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano 
This article was sponsored by Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano