Ponti returns to lead YSO

Raffaele Ponti won’t be joined by a guest artist when he conducts the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra on Sunday for the first Masterworks concert of the 2022-23 season.

“Guest artists are nice, but I don’t think every concert needs one,” Ponti said during a telephone interview. “I don’t want it to be about me or a guest artist, it’s about the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.”

Ponti is making his second appearance with the orchestra after conducting last year’s holiday pops concert, and he compared conducting an orchestra for the first time to a blind date.

“You just show up and sometimes it’s really fun and it’s gelling,” he said. “Other times it was nice, but you don’t want to do this again … The first time was so great that I accepted the offer to come back immediately. We clicked, there was great chemistry with the orchestra. The audience was good, and the staff was great and professional. Just an A-plus.”

Conducting a concert with pianist Jim Brickman and the YSO last year, Ponti had no input into the program. It was the holiday program Brickman plays in every city.

Ponti got to select Sunday’s musical lineup, which will feature Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, the overture from Mikhail Glinka’s opera “Ruslan and Lyudmila,” Giacomo Puccini’s “I crisantemi” (“The Chrysanthemums”) and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”

“I have the advantage of knowing their ability, their strengths and also their weaknesses,” Ponti said. “And their interests. You can’t try to jam something down the players. If the concept doesn’t work, if you don’t have buy-in, you’re not going to get a good performance out of it.”

He picked Brahms for the string section.

“It’s just an epic work,” he said. “It took him 14 years to write. I knew the strings would shine in this whole thing.”

Glinka’s overture will highlight the brass and percussion sections.

“Even in Italy, they don’t do the opera anymore,” Poni said. “There are not enough arias and it’s not a strong text, but the overture lives on as a great piece. I think there is so much great opera repertoire.”

That’s one of the reasons he also selected a shorter work by Puccini, best known for the operas “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot.” “The Chrysanthemums” was composed for string quartet and will show off Puccini’s “beautiful lyricism,” Ponti said, without having the audience sit through a three-hour opera.

The concert titled “Autumn Ablaze” will close with “The Firebird.” Ponti compared Stravinsky to artist Pablo Picasso and said “Firebird” contains “bold, brash rhythms almost vulgar to our ears” with lush, beautiful, romantic writing.

Ponti was born in Italy, and his family moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he began playing with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at age 17. As a student at Cleveland Institute of Music, he played his first concert with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 19.

He is artistic director of the Paducah (Ky.) Symphony Orchestra and the Punta Gorda (Fla.) Symphony.

Ponti is not a fan of famous classical musicians or operatic stars who decide to pick up a conductor’s baton when their performing skills diminish, but watching from the trumpet section and working with such conductors as Lorin Maazel and David Zinman helped Ponti make the transition from musician to conductor.

“I took the journey from the back row of the orchestra,” Ponti said, which gave him a perfect perch to learn his craft. Unlike a solo pianist, who is detached from the full orchestra, or a string player, who seldom has a break, a trumpet player frequently has long stretches where they are not playing. He used those times to study the conductor.

“I worked with David Zinman and Lorin Maazel, a great, great conductor, a genius on the podium with an incredible mind and great stick technique. I learned what worked and what didn’t work, what to say to an orchestra and what we don’t want to hear. We don’t care about (a conductor’s musical philosophy). Show me the beat, show me the tempo, show me the phrase you want and get out of the way so we can do our job.”

After conducting at Powers Auditorium for the pops concerts, Ponti said he is looking forward to hearing the orchestra in Stambaugh Auditorium.

“DeYor was really nice. The hall was perfect for the pops setting. As a former Cleveland boy, I felt with Stambaugh that I was walking into a mini Severance Hall. It’s really special. I hope to bring those walls alive with some great music.”

If you go …

WHAT: “Autumn Ablaze” — Youngstown Symphony Orchestra with Raffaele Ponti, guest conductor

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Stambaugh Auditorium, 1000 Fifth Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $22 to $52 and are available online at youngstownsymphony.com and by calling 330-259-9651.


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