Shooting for five transcendent minutes of music

The visiting conductor has nothing but praise for his young Israeli performers.

roberto paternostro 88 (photo credit: )
roberto paternostro 88
(photo credit: )
"You cannot manipulate the audience's emotions," says conductor Roberto Paternostro, sitting in a Tel Aviv caf between rehearsals of Il Re Pastore. The Israel Chamber Orchestra and a group of young Israeli singers will perform the two-part Mozart opera Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. Paternostro continues: "You can create an atmosphere in which people forget everything. If I can give them five minutes of this transcendent experience, it was a good concert, and if it was 10 - it was wonderful!" Paternostro, artistic director of the Kassel Opera and the city's Mahler Festival, conducts orchestras and opera productions throughout the world and is not a rare guest in Israel. He has conducted the Rishon LeZion and Haifa city orchestras and has a lot of family in Israel; Italian on his father's side, the Austrian-born Paternostro comes from a Jewish Viennese family on his mother's. "My Italian family were not devout Catholics, and my upbringing was mostly Jewish, [so] I spent my childhood in Vienna," he says. "My grandmother kept the traditions, so I know very well what erev Shabbat is." A tall man in his late forties, Paternostro is serious when he speaks about music, occasionally breaking the mood with charming smile that illuminates his entire face. A piano player since he was 7, Paternostro heard his first opera at 13 - an event that helped inspire him to become a conductor. He would eventually study with prominent conductors including Hans Swarowsky, Christoph von Dohnany and Gy ry Ligeti. "I was Swarowsky's first student, while Zubin [Mehta] was his last," he laughs. "Swarowsky was a great teacher who knew Schoenberg and Richard Strauss, so we received first-hand knowledge. He was very strict about following the score." At 20, he became an assistant of the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. "He was an absolutely professional musician who had worked his way up from a small opera house where he played piano," Paternostro says. "I still know by heart the operas, which I've learned with him. He taught me to be prepared for the concert and, you know, sometimes just to let the orchestra play. Granted, it needs a conductor, but if you hold it too strong, you can kill the sound." When preparing for a performance, Paternostro reads as much as possible, including any available composer's letters about the piece . "And then, with such a rich instrument as an orchestra, you can recreate the style of the epoch," he says. As a young man, he viewed the conductor as responsible for giving the right tempo to an orchestra, but he later realized that the job is all about motivating people. "This is impossible to explain and you cannot learn it from somebody else," he says. "You just give all your energy to the [musicians], and then you come home and recharge your batteries." Il Re Pastore, Paternostro's current concern, was written by Mozart when the composer was just 19, "but you can already hear melodies from his all major operas, which would come 10 years later." Paternostro enjoys conducting Mozart but says he finds it extremely difficult: "The music is so pure that, if you bring the wrong feeling [to a performance], you ruin everything." He doesn't expect that to happen at Tuesday's performance, however. Rehearsals have gone well, Paternostro says, and he's got nothing but praise for the young Israeli singers performing the opera.