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5 things you might not know about Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik's new music director

Robert Rowat

The time has come for Elisa Citterio to take the reins of Toronto's Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

Like her predecessor Jeanne Lamon — whose name had become synonymous with the organization over her 33 years in the job — Citterio is a baroque violinist with plenty of experience leading performances from the concertmaster's chair. So Tafelmusik's transition under her leadership should be effortless — a good thing, since there's no time to waste.

The orchestra's 2017–18 season begins with a concert of baroque hits called A Joyous Welcome at Toronto's Koerner Hall (Sept. 21, 22, 23, 24) and George Weston Recital Hall (Sept. 26). That's followed in mid-October by a program personally curated by Citterio entitled Elisa's Italian Adventure.

While all of that's going on, Tafelmusik will release its recording of the Beethoven symphony cycle on Sept. 22, and prepare for a concert tour of Eastern Canada from Nov. 21 to 26.

Citterio, who moved to Toronto from Milan in August with her partner and 14-month-old daughter, has hit the ground running. We were in touch with her recently and discovered some fun facts about her.

1. She's slightly obsessed with her hometown

Citterio was born in Brescia, Italy, and hometown pride has led her to champion two 17th-century composers from the area: Giovanni Battisti Fontana and Biagio Marini. “I can’t explain in words what I feel playing this music,” she told Wholenote. “It is somehow so familiar to me, and not because I have played it so often or heard it.” She and the musicians of Tafelmusik will play music by Fontana and Marini at Toronto's Trinity-St. Paul's Centre from Oct. 11 to 15.

"[Brescia] is a very liveable city," she tells us, "It is the right size to reach every place easily, and you always meet someone you know." One person you may meet there is her father, Renato, a retired painter.

If your plans include a trip to Brescia, Citterio suggests the following: "Visit Santa Giulia Museum, Duomo Vecchio and Tempio Capitolino; eat wonderful gnocchi at Shakti Food and ice cream at Il Biondo, and walk in the park around the castle."

2. She got turned on to the violin by a TV show

When she was five years old, Citterio saw an orchestra playing on TV and was transfixed by "the frenetic and coordinated movements of the violinist’s arms."

Soon thereafter, she received her first (quarter-sized) violin. However, until the age of 16, her primary instrument was the piano. "Sometimes I miss playing it," she reflects. At 17, she began focusing on violin and hasn't looked back.

3. She's from a family of talented musicians

Citterio's mother, Odelia Bellabona, was a talented pianist and composer and filled their household with music. "Anyone who spent time with my mother fell in love with classical music. She had music playing on the radio all day. It was enough to make me start asking to play," says Citterio, the youngest of four children, all of whom have pursued a life in music.

Citterio's sister Angela is principal flutist in Milan's Orchestra I pomeriggi musicali, while her other sister, Maria Grazia, is a guitarist, lutenist and director of a Suzuki music school. Her brother, following in his mother's footsteps, is a pianist and composer.

"We had a lot of fun playing together, especially when I used to sight-read, accompanied on piano by my brother," she recalls. "We didn't play all the notes correctly, but we played like actors in a show!"

4. Name an opera aria and she can probably hum it

Parallel to her specialization in baroque violin, Citterio has made a vocation of playing modern violin in opera orchestras, first in the orchestra of Rome Opera and then, from 2004 to 2017, Milan's La Scala orchestra.

She loves how so many art forms converge on an opera performance — "living the emotions of a whole show with musicians, actors, dancers and singers" — and says it has been a lesson in humility. "I’ve learnt to essere al servizio della musica (serve of the music). There are so many people involved in this kind of work. You need to stay within your role but offer everything you can."

Among the most exciting singers she has heard onstage, Citterio names Placido Domingo (his farewell performance of Verdi's Otello), Juan Diego Flores and Joyce DiDonato (starring together in Rossini's La Cenerentola — "the best singers and very funny onstage") and Jonas Kaufmann.

5. She can dance the Argentine tango

Citterio's interest in dance dates back to her childhood. "My mother used to switch on the TV every day from 12 to 12:30 for a classical ballet program. I’ve always loved to see people dancing since that time."

She first encountered tango in 2005 in Basel, Switzerland. "I watched a tango lesson and the teacher was a very good Argentinian friend of mine. I cried watching them dance a very old and melancholic tango," she remembers. This led to five years of weekly lessons and a trip to Buenos Aires for intensive study.

Is there a connection between Argentine tango and baroque music? "Yes," asserts Citterio, "the improvisation."

Baroque music that is at once demanding and delightful, elaborate and sensuous. Hear: Johann Sebastian Bach
Georg Friedrich Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, Henry Purcell, Jean-Philippe Rameau and more!

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