Have baton, will travel: The Italian-born maestro pushing our orchestra to new heights

Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s newish chief conductor Umberto Clerici has an ambition to create a world-class orchestra worthy of an Olympic city – and he’ll do that one concert at a time



Aug 23, 2023, updated Aug 23, 2023

Umberto Clerici is waving his hands around and talking about a big Mahler concert for the 2032 Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games. But hang on a minute, that’s nine years away. He intends to be still in the job in nine years?

That would be a stretch of service worthy of any Olympian. But one has to have a goal, right?

Clerici, 42, has been in the job just over a year and is admired for the passion and energy he has brought to the task. He follows superstar Mexican conductor Alondra De La Parra and interim conductor Johannes Fritsch.

It was de la Parra who began working her way through the various Mahler symphonies and he will follow her lead and next month will conduct Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in a couple of concerts entitled Clerici Conducts Mahler – A Musical Odyssey. He wants us all to go on this Mahler journey with him.

“There are 10 symphonies in all but the last one is unfinished,” Clerici says as we chat in the QSO’s offices overlooking South Bank Parklands.

“I wouldn’t do the last one. It has been finished but Mahler only wrote 20 per cent of it so I don’t believe that would be right. Nobody does 10 anyway. After Beethoven’s ninth nobody wanted to go past nine.”

Clerici has programmed Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for next year and in 2025 will close with number nine.

What about number eight?

“Well that one is just too big,” he says. “It’s one of the largest choral works ever written and they call if the Symphony of a Thousand. It’s huge and it would be good to keep that one to do around the time of the Olympics.”

He’s nothing if not ambitious and Clerici, an internationally renowned cellist as well as a conductor, is certainly that. He wants to shake up the orchestra though, so don’t be fooled by his effusive and friendly Italian manner although it is very engaging. I don’t get a hug at the beginning of many interviews but I was greeted like a long-lost friend when we met. Which was lovely.

But he is also determined to be a hard taskmaster where needed and to take no prisoners on the way to finishing what Alondra de la Parra started, turning the QSO into a world class outfit.

We’re getting there, he suggests, but there’s work to do and that’s his job. He may only be here for a few months a year (conductors lead peripatetic lives) and he wants to make them count.

He’s happy to be here too, when he is in town and wife Sophie, a judge, joins him when she can. They lived mostly in Sydney for some years but he says Brisbane suits him fine and that Sophie enjoys her time here too.

“Some people apologize that Brisbane is not Sydney,” he says. “But I love it here. I mean look at the light. I also like that it is the opposite of where I come from, Turin, which is very old and full of churches and stone buildings. This is a very vibrant city. It might not be recognized globally as a centre of the arts yet but it’s clear to me that Brisbane is ambitious and wants to become more relevant.”

So, like Kevin in ’07, Umberto Clerici is here to help.

This week he conducts an intimate concert entitled Classical Connections in the orchestra’s South Bank Studio. But don’t get too excited about that if you don’t already have a ticket because it’s sold out. It will feature music by Mozart, Haydn and Bartok.

Your next chance to see him in action – and he is worth seeing in action because of his passion and theatrics in front of the orchestra – will be on September 22 and 23 when he begins his Mahler odyssey. Those concerts will also feature a new symphony by his friend, the composer Justin Williams, “a personal friend of mine and a colleague at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for years”.

He says Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is impressive for “the sheer size of the orchestra on stage” .

“A massive number of musicians are need to perform this work,” he says. “Across four movements Mahler deals with the idea of fate as something inescapable, from the relentless march that opens the music to the famous hammer blows in the finale which have to be seen to be believed. “

The hammer blows are made with a huge specially-built wooden hammer which is rammed into a wooden block for effect, a unique addition by Mahler. Think Thor’s hammer and you are on the right track and the QSO did think of perhaps asking Chris Hemsworth to do a special appearance to deliver the blows. Nice idea which turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream but it got your attention, didn’t it?

But wait, there’s more and the orchestra will be busy through to December when it will play for The Ring Cycle – a Brisbane iteration of Wagner’s Magnum Opus. Umberto Clerici will not be conducting that, however, because he will be busy elsewhere conducting and playing.

And people have been asking if, as well as being chief conductor, we might see him play his cello in Brisbane sometime soon.

“I don’t really want to play much because I don’t think mixing the two aspects of my career in the one institution is a good idea,” Clerici says. “But at the end of next year we will close the season with me playing.” Nice.

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