With a shock of insuppressible silver hair falling over thinly framed spectacles, Giovanni Antonini has a certain strigine appearance which reflects his obvious wisdom and wide-ranging intellect. Antonini is a musician who is not content to stand on his formidable laurels but is constantly seeking out new fields of endeavour as both baroque flautist and internationally respected conductor. The latest challenge for the founder of the renowned Il Giardino Armonico ensemble has been the Artistic Directorship of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław Poland – his first foray into artistic administration.

Jonathan Sutherland caught up with the Milanese maestro in the remote village of Schärding in Upper Austria.

Giovanni Antonini
© Paolo Morello
What first attracted you to the position of Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival?

You know, it was a kind of adventure. I am not someone who is looking to be the director of something or the principal conductor of an orchestra. I am not an institutional person in general. In 2012 when the General Director of the NFM offered me the position, I was really quite surprised. I took six months to decide, as artistic direction was not really my usual work and there is a different responsibility to that of a performer. Finally, I agreed to accept – really in the spirit of adventure. It was also a challenge to explore new repertoire, not only for the Festival but also for me personally.  As the Festival does not specialize in any particular period, it pushed me to study different types of music. I am not saying I was ignorant of other kinds of music, but it provided the opportunity to be involved with something different from my own ensemble, which has been a great experience.

What are the biggest challenges in planning a 10-day Festival?

In any Festival you need a balance in programming and an Artistic Director obviously has to be concerned about the response of the public. Balance is everything. We need to create a bridge between the creators of the Festival and the public but this doesn’t mean you only present music the audience is sure to like. My attitude is different to some modern opera directors who are happy when people boo because they think the public are stupid and don’t understand their genius. There has to be a mixture of ‘mainstream’ music, but also something different or even strange, which the audience may or may not like.

With a third of concerts in this year’s Festival featuring Monteverdi, his 450th anniversary is obviously important for you. Is Sir John Eliot Gardiner someone whose interpretations of Monteverdi's operas are of particular interest to you and if so why?

Gardiner has been working on Monteverdi for many years. His attention to voices and the text is well known and he also has a special taste in choosing the singers for his productions. I think it is very important to listen to the interpretations of a maestro who has contributed to the renaissance of this repertoire in such an artistic way.

One of the Festival’s aims is to celebrate the beauty of the human voice in all its forms and shapes. Last year you had Bulgarian singing and this year will feature a Sardinian band. Is it an ambition of yours to explore the voice beyond the usual boundaries of the classical repertoire?

Of course our foremost goal is to present quality performances and the word “classical” has a very wide meaning for me. The Bulgarian choir was also a kind of classical music sung in a very unique style. This year we’ll have an interesting combination of traditional singing (The Sardinian Voices) but also with Renaissance and contemporary music. This is a very adventurous program which I’m very excited about.

Will you be performing in this year’s Wratislavia Cantans Festival?

Yes, I will be performing in the Telemann Brockes-Passion with Il Giardino and will also play a smaller concert called La Morte della Ragione focused on late Renaissance and Early Baroque music by lesser-known composers such as Alexander Agricola, Dario Castello, and Gesualdo da Venosa.

© Wratislavia Cantans Festival
The Wratislavia Cantans Festival has existed for over 50 years. Did you want to make major changes to the style of the Festival or were you happy to continue as before?

The Festival started in 1966 so you can imagine how completely different political and cultural situations were in Poland at that time. There was a much stronger spiritual aspect at the beginning and even performing a Bach Passion was not so easy to do. The spiritual element still lives on through programmes such as celebrating 500 years of the Reformation with the Vocalconsort Berlin, or the theme of the Stabat Mater explored throughout music history by Il Suonar Parlante and Cuncordu de Orosei.

The new NFM hall changed the physical perception of the Festival, although we will continue to have performances in churches, such St Mary Magdalene with a concert dedicated to Masters of Italian Polyphony performed by Hervé Niquet and his Le Concert Spirituel ensemble. This year also brings a collaboration with the Wrocław Opera for the first time and Teodor Currentzis will conduct La clemenza di Tito there. In the past, opera in the Festival was quite rare but this year there will be two as John Eliot Gardiner will direct Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at the NFM.

I think this Festival could become internationally much more famous. It is extremely important within Poland, but right now not so well known outside the country. We want to attract people who go to Salzburg or Schleswig-Holstein and other big Festivals to start coming to Wrocław as well. It is such a beautiful city; it is also very safe and inexpensive. Wrocław is a place where you feel very welcome, and not just for the music.

Can you tell us more about Stanisław Moniuszko who will be unfamiliar to most of our readers. Who would you compare him to and what is special about his writing?

Moniuszko is an important Polish-Lithuanian composer from the romantic period who contributed to the development of Polish opera. I think that a Festival has a duty to present rare works even if this composer is actually quite well known inside his own country.

In addition to Moniuszko's The Phantoms you’re also programming other Polish works such as Uru-Anna by contemporary composer Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil. Is it your aim to raise awareness of the Polish repertoire within the broader European audience and is this likely to be a theme in future Festivals?

The quality of Polish music, especially in 20th century is very high and for a Polish Festival it is important to combine “international” programming with national music also outside mainstream classical field. Yes, we will continue in this direction in future Festivals.

© Slawek Przerwa | NFM
Do Polish musicians perform Baroque music in a particular style? Is it different to what you are used to in Italy?

It’s difficult to define national styles these days. I have thought a lot about this. It was much more obvious in the time of Telemann or Bach when the style of performance in say Leipzig, was a completely different universe to that of Napoli. Today with the immediacy of communications, with recordings, CDs videos etc, there is less motivation to develop a distinctive or personal style. Often people ask me, “What is the Italian way of playing Baroque music?” OK, maybe it used to be more theatrical, especially in comparison to the style of Dutch musicians 20 years ago, but now there is much more cross-fertilization. We develop a kind of musical schematic of how we expect music to sound but I think it is sometimes good to break this paradigm and develop more original styles.

Teodor Currentzis was recently quoted as saying that “classical music is dying”. Do you agree?

I don’t know. During the 1960s I read an article about the death of classical music but also we have to define what exactly ‘classical’ music is. Josquin des Prez is classical music, Cavalli is classical music, the Beatles are classical music. The Rolling Stones also. I think it is more the form of the concert that is changing. Musicians in evening dress, silence, applause – maybe yes, that could be finished. Sometimes I am bit nostalgic for the formal nature of the concert because now we live in a time where things are more and more informal. I think in any case, a concert is a ritual. Even a rock concert is a ritual – with different rules.

What do you do when you are not playing or conducting or planning future Wratislavia Cantans Festivals?

If I go on holiday, I like to go somewhere in the south of Italy such as Sicily which is the only place I can really relax. This job can become quite obsessive and even when I am on holiday, my mind is constantly thinking about music. I am very passionate about classical literature and am re-reading the classic authors and discovering so many links to music. Music is always there. It never takes a vacation!

The interview was sponsored by Wratislavia Cantans Festival.