Portrait of an Artist: Federico Cortese
Italian-born conductor Federico Cortese has branched out from his family of diplomats and his law degree: he has performed with some of the most esteemed orchestras in the world and has travelled everywhere from Houston to Sydney as a guest conductor. He now heads the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and he teaches a class on conducting at Harvard. The former music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cortese has conducted at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the Spoleto Festival in Florence, the Finnish National Opera, and numerous other festivals all over the globe.
The Harvard Crimson: Why did you decide to become a conductor?
Federico Cortese: I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m afraid I decided to become a conductor for all the wrong reasons. It’s a particularly common boy’s disease—in this, girls are much wiser. I think that we boys develop this interest based on the misconception that when you’re up there, you lead—you’re the boss, and you make sound just by moving your hands—all of which is all wrong, totally wrong. The reality is very different. When you’re up there, no one is looking up at you. People are much less impressed by your movements. You’re not making any music—the orchestra is making music and you’re trying to lead it in the direction that you want, provided you know how to lead it and where to lead it to.
THC: What is it like to conduct versus to teach conducting?
FC: Conducting is borderline impossible to teach. It’s the result of years of experience. There are some basic things—how to beat a four-four, how to stay clear in your beat—but these are pretty trivial…. So we try to present the students with what will later on be the challenges of being a conductor: the understanding of the score, the knowledge of the style, so that when you start [conducting], you’re not just beating—you have an idea of the sound. The beating is just a function of it. Otherwise, it’s like teaching poetry by giving basic grammar lessons…. About conducting: I don’t think that many HRO people realize it, but when we are making music together, there is no difference between the students and the conductor.... It’s their performance as much as mine. When I am with HRO, I really feel we are in the same boat. When I teach, we are in two different boats. The goal is not to make something together—the goal is to try to teach something to the students and develop the qualities they already have.
THC: You studied law as well as music. How have you used your law degree?
FC: The degree is sitting in my drawer somewhere—I have no idea where it is. I think it’s in Rome, but I’m not sure.
THC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
FC: One thing: I do think that always, everything in life...HRO, and to some extent the experiments I am doing with music performance classes, are always a work in progress. So I never take the rules of the past as the only possible way. You certainly need to start from that—you don’t want to break traditions—but you need to update things. You need to find ways to better serve not just the musicians, but the community at Harvard and in general. I am trying to find ways so that music-making can become more relevant in the life of the students, and not just a little hobby.