SSO conductor and artistic director brought Italian passion
With banners on the city streets welcoming his arrival, Gelmetti was a natural ambassador of Italian culture, his endorsements sought out everything from furniture to pasta. Waks, who attended a masterclass on spaghetti carbonara, revealed his secret: “One of the most important things, aside from the al dente texture, is the use of the sauce sparingly, regardless of how much. either type. GG explained that the sauce should just coat the pasta, which should always be the hero. A bit like his most successful musical performances.
From the start, Gelmetti loved the SSO’s openness to new ideas and embarked on creating what he saw as a “Sydney sound” – with an even balance between the string sections. He increased the double basses to 12 and repositioned them at the back to soak up all the texture, although the idea received mixed reviews. Although introduced in accordance with his view of Verdi’s intentions, it was an approach that often worked best in Brahms, Beethoven, and Mahler.
Olding remembers a particularly memorable performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C (“The Great”). “The best concerts are those where time seems to have stood still for the musicians and the audience. Orchestral musicians will know how tiring this piece is to play and how endless it can seem when the performance is not optimal. Gelmetti made this performance effortless and the orchestral sound had a certain resonance rarely achieved.
Both composer and conductor, Gelmetti sought to defend the new works, giving first performances of the music of Australian Liza Lim and creating a series, “The Shock of the New”, in which old and new works, performed without interruption, were announced after being heard, with the public being encouraged to read the program only afterwards.
Libby Christie, SSO’s Executive Director during her tenure, witnessed her interest in Australia and Australian music. “He has traveled extensively in the NSW area, leading our regional tours, visiting remote communities such as Broken Hill, Griffith, Armidale and Lismore among many other… habits and I was surprised to find how hard it was to find a restaurant open in regional Australia at 10pm in the evening after a concert!
Timothy Calnin, Director of Artistic Planning at SSO until 2004, recalls: “He was a conductor very committed to adding repertoire and never took new scores lightly. Making programs and selecting guest artists was much more difficult with Gelmetti, especially since he was wary of working with soloists he had never worked with before. His rather limited list of favorite soloists was almost exclusively Italian (Michele Campanella, Andrea Lucchesini, Mario Brunello, Salvatore Accardo…).
SSO principal cellist Catherine Hewgill appreciated her artistic idiosyncrasies. “I will never forget his presence at auditions, which often took place the night after a performance, where he wandered around looking like a tired rock star, his sunglasses never leaving his face. He was always five minutes late for rehearsals, his assistant carrying the heavy sheet music on stage for him, and he was wearing his signature long black shirt, of which he apparently had a lot of, but they were all the same.
Although well known in Europe as an opera conductor, the only full opera he conducted in Sydney was a supple and intriguing concert of Puccini’s neglected late work. The Rondine in 2006. Noted as a conductor of Rossini, where he conducted several works for the Pesaro Rossini Festival, his Rossini performances in Sydney were limited to concerts, including a Rossini gala in 2007 with an imposing performance by Barcellona in the composer Stabat Mater. On one occasion, he accompanied the serenade of The Barber of Seville on the guitar. A crowning achievement was the award of a Rossini d’Oro for a full interpretation of the composer’s last frequently cut masterpiece, Guillaume Tell. Waks remembers “a magnificent performance, with the four hours that have passed in a flash, with many memorable moments, including a very controlled opening and therefore much more exciting”.
Arriving in Sydney, Gelmetti had likened the relationship of orchestra and conductor to a marriage, and by 2006 it was clear that it was starting to calm down, with the news of his leaving at the end of his five-year contract. The end of his contract in Sydney also marks the last year of his tenure in Rome, and in 2012 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, where he remained until 2016.
In addition to his important positions, Gelmetti has performed regularly in Germany and throughout Europe, and has frequently worked in Japan with the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic and, in his later years, in Qatar.
Throughout his career, Gelmetti has also been involved in education, working with Youth Music Australia to create a memorable performance of Mahler’s First Symphony in Melbourne in 1995. When he started his post in Sydney, he performed lamented the absence, with the exception of a few luminaries, of Australian chefs both in Australia and abroad. In addition to his participation in the ABC’s conducting program, he has taught conducting at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena and at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
Although larger than life, his personality had complex layers. He loved the applause and proudly brought his new baby girl, Bianca Laura, on stage after a concert to meet the audience. Olding remembers another side: “I remember his first day of rehearsal where his opening remarks to the orchestra were full of respect for his musicians and reflected his Christian values of ‘doing to others …’ etc. . life in a quintessentially Italian way, and a love of music.
After a performance of Beethoven Missa solennis for World Youth Day in 2008, he repeated the last words of the work in a sincere call for recall, “pacem, pacem! As Waks recalls: “He was a real Italian opera character in every sense of the word. Despite his clearly unbalanced physique, I thought him indestructible and assumed he would outlive us all.