Meet the new Sovrintendente of the Toscanini Foundation in Parma- director of the Toscanini Orchestra, the Toscanini international Conducting Competition, and host of the 2024 General Assembly

WFIMC: Having arrived just a few weeks ago, how do you manage to be the Chief Executive of this huge arts institution and still find time to conduct, make recordings and be a musician?

Ruben Jais: I’ve divided my time into two different roles for many years. Sometimes it’s crazy, but I love working as General Manager, Intendant and Artistic Director while at the same time creating new projects with my Baroque ensemble. Working with musicians, being a musician myself, makes me understand certain problems better, and it helps me to understand why certain choices are better or worse for an orchestra. Recently I have done less conducting as I need to concentrate all my energies in the development of the Toscanini Foundation, which yields enormous power with its incredible orchestra.

The Filarmonica Toscanini is a relatively young orchestra...

The orchestra was founded almost 50 years ago, in 1975, in order to revive our traditions and provide an ensemble for Emilia Romagna region to perform opera. But we also need to expand the quality and quantity of our symphonic repertoire, and so we are holding auditions in June to enlarge our strings and reinforce our brass section. It sounds quite extraordinary to have new orchestral positions in an Italian orchestra right now, where elsewhere positions and budgets are cut. Our foundation has been well managed and is in great shape, so we can invest in stable new jobs rather than having to hire extra players all the time. Our last Principal Conductor was Enrico Onofri, a very fine musician but someone who obviously would focus on Baroque and Classical repertoire. From now on, a broader musician base will allow us to do much larger orchestrations.

Toscanini himself started out playing the cello. Are you also a cellist?

I wish! I studied piano and later harpsichord. Bach is my bible, as for many other musicians. Soon, it will be Easter and I am conducting St. John ́s Passion in Spain and here in Milan.

At age 18, Toscanini became a star overnight when he was asked to conduct Aida with two hours’ notice, without rehearsal. He conducted from memory. If someone asked you to do Aida tonight, would you say yes?

Thank you, but no. I can conduct St. John’s Passion from memory tomorrow, or St. Matthew’s Passion... Verdi is a different story, even though I certainly studied Aida. When I started working in Milan, I was assistant to Romano Gandolfi, renowned chorus master at La Scala. He had worked with Abbado, Karajan, Bernstein and all the big conductors, and of course we also did Aida. Gandolfi was from Parma, and he used to work with the Toscanini Orchestra too. As his assistant, I got to come here many times. Right now, it feels a bit funny, like coming back home, because I was here a lot during the beginning of my career.

Cathedral Square in the heart of Parma´s old town

The orchestra would have been quite different back then.

At the time, the organisation had different orchestras, among them the so-called “Maazel Philharmonic Orchestra”, which was conducted by Lorin Maazel and many other big-name conductors. But our foundation could not support all these famous artists and quickly came to the brink of bankruptcy. Emilia Romagna region had to bail out the orchestra.

You are no stranger to big names and big projects.

My biggest project was a Mahler Festival in Milano, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Orchestra Verdi, of which I was the Director. We invited all major orchestras in Italy: La Scala, Santa Cecilia, RAI Torino, La Toscanini, Maggio Musicale and Orchestra Haydn from Bolzano.

But as Director of La Toscanini, you will also be responsible for the Toscanini Competition. Will this be the first time you have organised a competition?

With my orchestra in Milan, we regularly performed for competitions like Rina Sala Gallo and Ettore Pozzoli. But it will be my first time at the Toscanini Conducting Competition.

When the Toscanini Competition was last held in 2021, it was focused solely on opera, with the finalists each conducting an entire act of an opera at Teatro Regio in Parma. Will you do the same?

As we are concentrating more on symphonic repertoire in general, the competition will also follow that direction. Toscanini was a fantastic opera conductor, but he was also extremely talented as a conductor of symphonic repertoire. 

From your point of view, what role do you think that competitions should have, given it is getting increasingly difficult for young conductors to start a career?

Let’s put it this way: I think nowadays young conductors have more opportunities than ever before. Audiences want to see young and talented conductors and the great energy they bring to the stage. But at the same time, we have to help them grow.
I think you learn to be a conductor when you are 75 or 80 years old. It’s a job you learn only by doing it for many, many years, because it not only requires you to be a fantastic musician but also to understand the will of the composer. The most important aspect of conducting is how you handle people – how you are able to manage the people in front of you. As a conductor, your instrument is the orchestra and you have to know how to play it!
They say that Victor de Sabata could play every instrument. Maybe it’s true, but that was probably the big exception. Nowadays, conductors are specialists in one instrument, the other ones only theoretically, but your real mission is to convince the orchestra of one musical idea and bring them together in one interpretation. The older you become, the better you are able to communicate and share your ideas and your opinion with other musicians.
In Toscanini ́s lifetime, things were different. Even though he came from a poor family, Toscanini was a very cultured man. He could speak several languages, he knew how to play an instrument and he knew how to compose. Not so his musicians. Orchestra players in the 18th and 19th centuries usually knew how to play their instrument, but they were much less educated in arts and literature than today. And so, conductors could be like god in front of the orchestra, holding all the power they wanted.
Today, the interaction between the conductor and the musicians cannot be the same as Toscanini was used to. It’s much more complex. Some young conductors have a natural skill of course, sometimes you find extremely talented young musicians, but you have to help them grow. Monetary prizes are good, but conducting opportunities with orchestras and connections to important institutions are much more important.

Sala Paganini- main venue for the Toscanini Orchestra

Teatro Regio- Parma´s famous opera house

Nowadays, many competitions have become versatile by not offering only one particular field. For example, a violin competition can offer solo playing, a recital with piano, performing in a quartet, playing and conducting a chamber orchestra and playing a large solo concerto. You don’t have to be perfect in every discipline. But
in order to find great talent, they want to see how candidates react in all these different situations. As a specialist in Baroque ensemble yourself, would
it not make sense to do the same in a conducting competition: conduct a large orchestra, a chamber ensemble, a Contemporary or a Baroque group, an opera, a chorus, and so on?

Sure. But then I think that nowadays you have to somehow specialise. I don’t think that even the most talented conductors can face the entire repertoire, from Baroque to Contemporary music, from opera conducting to Mahler and Strauss. You have to concentrate on a certain field because it requires so much energy and effort. I was an assistant to Riccardo Chailly, a fantastic conductor. His 19th and 20th-century repertoire – Mahler, Stravinsky, Strauss, Shostakovich – was breathtaking. But he rarely conducts Mozart. The same thing applies to Claudio Abbado – he had his very own repertoire. But I think it’s tricky to do all at once. One day Aida, the next day Messiah. Either you do Messiah in Verdi style, which is terrible, or you do Aida as if it was Handel, which is even worse.
Every conductor has to find his or her own field and specialism, and so seeing who won which competition is helpful if we are looking for conductors who are good at a particular repertoire.

This month marks the second edition of La Maestra International Competition for Women Conductors in Paris. Do you feel there is still a stigma around female conductors, especially here in Parma and in Italy?

The first female music director in Italy was Xian Zhang, a Chinese American. She led my orchestra, the Orchestra Verdi in Milan, for seven years. I remember the first time she came and stood in front of the orchestra: she was conducting a guest performance, and she was seven months pregnant. She stepped on the podium and started working, and after five minutes no one cared whether she was male or female. She was the conductor. That’s it. She was a musician, and she knew what she had to do. For me, that’s the whole point. I hate to classify conductors as female or male – they have to be good at what they are doing. Milan saw many female conductors, and there were many of them here in Parma. Both cities are open and flexible. But I don’t want to hire a conductor only because she is a woman.
I need to have a musician on the podium, their gender is irrelevant. I understand that some institutions are reluctant, or simply resist the inclusion of women. For me, that is not an issue. I realise there are less female conductors on stage in general, but I think there are also less women beginning a career as a conductor. If we begin to hire women only because we need to have women conductors without looking at their qualifications, it will be more damaging than anything else.

In June 2024, Parma will host the General Assembly as well as a Marketing Forum of the World Federation of International Music Competitions. What should the delegates expect?

Parma is a city of music, of culture and of gastronomy. It has an incredible history, with the city dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and was once one of the capital cities of Italy! We have one of the most important opera theatres in the country and a great symphony orchestra. The city is incredibly proactive and invests a lot of money in culture, and you can feel that our audiences are really keen on taking part in concerts and events. We have famous industries like Barilla and Mutti, and Ferrari nearby, who actively support the arts. Look at the home of our orchestra: the auditorium is a former sugar factory, transformed and redesigned by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. But Parma has much more to offer. The surroundings are incredible, the hills, the castles and of course the food. Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma are famous around the world, but it is here where you can try the real thing.

Do you have a favourite spot in the city?

The first time I came to Parma was when I was Romano Gandolfi’s assistant. And the first thing I remember is the great Pilotta Palace. In the courtyard of the museum, La Toscanini used to have a summer stage for concerts. To listen to Rossini and Verdi in these surroundings was simply unforgettable. But it gets even better when you walk into the Pilotta: the art gallery is amazing (you will even find Leonardo da Vinci there), and they have one of the most important libraries of all times, the Biblioteca Palatina, which was founded in 1761. On top of that there is the Teatro Farnese, the oldest wooden theatre in the world – it is simply overwhelming. 

For Italians, Milan is really where it all happens. How does it feel for you, having lived in Milan for so many years, to move to Parma?

Milan is the capital of Lombardia, and Lombardia is essentially Milan, even though there are a lot of other towns which go more or less unnoticed. Here, in Emilia Romagna, you have Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Reggio and Parma. They all have their own character, and they are all enemies – sometimes it’s really funny. But in the end they work together and you can tell: the quality of life here is much, much higher.
After the second world war, many people came to the north of Italy from the southern provinces. Because of the Austrian influence, the north was rich, while the south was extremely poor. Many people came to work in the factories, and if they were from the south they would be called “terrone” – someone who works with “terra”, with soil, like a peasant. Not such a nice thing to say. Nowadays, they tell me that people coming to Parma from Milan are called “Terroni from the north.” So this is who I am. I’m not one of them, but so far they have accepted me, and it feels fantastic to work in this city.


©WFIMC 2024/FR
This interview first appeard in the March issue of International Arts Manager Magazine.