INTERVIEWS | The Sunday Times

Daniele Rustioni, the new conductor of the Ulster Orchestra

The 35-year-old Italian is taking up the baton in Belfast — and his plans are ambitious

Hugh Canning

The announcement last weekend that the 35-year-old Italian Daniele Rustioni has been appointed chief conductor of Belfast’s Ulster Orchestra from this autumn is one of the best pieces of news to come out of Northern Ireland of late.

Rustioni may be known above all as an opera conductor — he was a member of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker programme 2008-09, later assisting Antonio Pappano until 2011 after studying at the Royal Academy of Music — but in recent seasons he has been increasingly acclaimed as a symphonic maestro. He has been doing the rounds of the regions — the CBSO in Birmingham, the BBC Phil and the Hallé in Manchester, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh and Glasgow — and, with his wife, the Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego, has recorded works by Paganini and Wolf-Ferrari in Birmingham for Deutsche Grammophon.

His Ulster appointment comes after only three concerts: a short lunchtime appearance, a live BBC broadcast and his main season debut. “We opened with a Busoni overture, then we did Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, with my better half as soloist,” he twinkles, “then Schubert’s Great C major symphony. I think that was the clincher.”

The couple have a flat in Bloomsbury, so the Milan-born conductor considers himself an adoptive Londoner and a Brit already, although he is eager to get to know Belfast better. “The acoustic of the Ulster Hall is so good. The violins, all the strings, can really create a special sound, but I think, and hope, we can do much better. Sorry!”

“Of course, the Symphony Hall, in Birmingham, and the Bridgewater, in Manchester, are both very good, but the Ulster Hall is so intimate [1,000 seats]. It’s perfect. Also, historically, this is an interesting time — Northern Ireland, Brexit. Belfast is the place to be,” he beams.

His managing director will be Richard Wigley, whom he met at the BBC Philharmonic when assisting his mentor, Gianandrea Noseda. He knows there are big challenges ahead: “Richard and I, we trust each other.”

Rustioni’s contract runs initially for three years, with an option to extend for another two. How many weeks is he planning to do in Belfast? “Next season starts tomorrow in planning terms, but actually in September this year, when I will open the season with some Italian music — because I am Italian and two of the musicians come from Sicily. So we will do Verdi’s overture to I vespri siciliani, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Johannes Moser and, because I love the hall and want to showcase its organ, the Saint-Saëns organ symphony.”

The orchestra’s season won’t be announced until May, but Rustioni says: “I think I am allowed to tell you that the last concert will be Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.” Which means a rousing start and an uplifting finale to his regime’s first season. Due to his commitments in France — he is music director of the Opéra de Lyon — and opera engagements elsewhere, the season will be limited to six programmes in 2019-20, rising to nine or 10 the following year.

“I will work with the orchestra on community services, playing the piano myself with the musicians, and we are talking to Chandos about recording the orchestra. I think Richard [Wigley] is working towards bringing the orchestra every summer to the Proms, too, rather than once every two years.” The fall in the value of sterling since the Brexit vote should be an incentive for the Proms to use regional British orchestras more frequently.

Rustioni resolved to demonstrate his versatility by launching his music directorship of the Opéra de Lyon with a staging of Britten’s War Requiem in 2017, and is working there on a new production of Tchaikovsky’s seldom-performed The Enchantress. His international opera schedule includes return appearances at the New York Met and Covent Garden.

As a symphonic conductor, he aims to follow in the footsteps of renowned Italians from Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado to his older contemporaries Riccardo Muti (during whose regime at La Scala he sang the Third Boy in The Magic Flute in 1995), Riccardo Chailly and Noseda. He conducted the touring Orchestra della Toscana for five years, in a wide-ranging repertoire including the big Austro-German symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, so he comes to Ulster with plenty of experience in this field.

“My next challenge is Bruckner and Mahler, which I didn’t do so much in Toscana. We will do Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in 2020, the Beethoven year [the 250th anniversary of his birth], but I’m looking forward to working with the chorus, maybe for a Verdi Requiem in a few years’ time.”