Richmond Symphony taps Valentina Peleggi

Valentina Peleggi has been named the new music director of the Richmond Symphony. She will be the sixth music director in the symphony’s 63-year history and the first woman in the post.

The 37-year-old Italian conductor, who currently is Mackerras Fellow in the conducting program of the English National Opera in London and guest music director of the Theatro São Pedro in São Paulo, Brazil, will take up the Richmond post on July 1. She has been engaged initially for four years.

The symphony’s musicians were “bowled over” by her conducting skills and level of interaction in rehearsals for and performances of a Masterworks program in March, said David Fisk, the orchestra’s executive director. “She was head and shoulders over [three] other candidates, all of whom are excellent conductors.” (A fifth candidate, Farkhad Khudyev, was to have led audition concerts this month; they were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

“Within hours of Ms. Peleggi’s first interaction with the symphony, members of the search committee knew she was very special, and by the time of her Masterworks concerts, there was unanimous agreement that she was ‘the one,’ ” said Elisabeth Wollan, who led the music-director search committee.

“The passion, enthusiasm and profound musical sensitivity of the musicians of the Richmond Symphony impressed me enormously from our very first rehearsal,” Peleggi said in a statement released with the announcement of her appointment.

In the 2020-21 symphony season, Peleggi is scheduled to conduct eight weeks of concerts, including a Sept. 12 community festival under the orchestra’s Big Tent outdoor stage, as well as four Masterworks programs and chamber-orchestra concerts in the Metro Collection and Rush Hour series, on dates to be announced later.

“We were surprised and gratified that she was able to commit so much time in her first season, given her responsibilities with the English National Opera,” Fisk said.

A native of Florence, Peleggi is an alumna of the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome and the conducting program of London’s Royal Academy of Music. She also studied with David Zinman at the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich and Daniele Gatti at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

She won the 2014 conducting prize of the Festival International de Inverno Campos do Jordão in Brazil and the Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Conducting Prize at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, and was a 2015-17 recipient of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, organized by Marin Alsop to mentor female conductors.

Peleggi formerly served as resident conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor and artistic advisor of its chorus, and as music director of the University Choir of Florence. She has guest-conducted a number of ensembles, including the Royal Philharmonic in London, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

* * *

“I cannot wait for the next note to start. It will be so powerful, so moving.”

Speaking by phone from Florence earlier today, Valentina Peleggi was recalling her journey, both physically and emotionally, from a busy schedule of performing on three continents to a solitary trip home, passing through largely deserted Italian cities. “When all this – the pandemic, the deaths, the isolation – started, I found I couldn’t really listen to music. I was feeling full of so many emotions, there wasn’t enough space to accept another emotional presence.

“And the silence: Everything felt so strange. The normal noises we hear weren’t there anymore.

“Then I started thinking, this isn’t really silence, but the pause before what comes next – anticipation, something that is very important in music. Thinking that way helps me. I think it will help others.”

Peleggi has a lot to anticipate: Her first opportunity to craft the artistic direction of an orchestra after years as a student, understudy to artistic directors and guest conductor of various ensembles. She said she was delighted to find in the Richmond Symphony’s musicians “real artists – engaged and passionate, driven by this hunger for excellence, always concerned with how we can do this better.

“It’s not that common to work with such musicians. You are blessed to have them.”

She is one of a new generation of female conductors – like many of them, she was mentored by Marin Alsop, a onetime associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, who encouraged Peleggi to audition for the music directorship here.

Unlike many conductors today, however, Peleggi followed a professional course that was the norm a century ago: Starting her career in opera houses, coaching singers and serving as an assistant or potential substitute in leading the opera orchestra. She also has worked extensively as a choral director.

“That experience is very enriching for a conductor,” she said. “Working with voices enables you to reflect on the importance of vocal qualities in all of music – how consonants and vowels shape musical phrases and, above all, how important it is for the musician, and the music, to breathe.

“From opera, we also learn to view pieces of music from a dramatic, a storytelling, point of view, to understand the dramatic intentions of composers. Whether a piece is a music drama or an instrumental work, there is some dramaturgic intention to it.”

Peleggi also looks for resonations of other art forms in music. “I studied comparative literature as well as music, and I think that opened up my learning path as a musician, making me hear music from a wider artistic perspective.”

In recent generations, symphony orchestra conductors have been expected to prepare convincing, stylish performances of repertory spanning four centuries, from the baroque to the contemporary. Peleggi said she is all too aware of how challenging that can be.

Although she could name composers and works “that are closest to my heart,” she does not consider herself a specialist in any particular school or period of music. “I am most interested and curious, I think, about the sound world, and I like to discover pieces that can speak to us in a powerful way.”

Peleggi sees her role as music director of an orchestra as one who “opens doors. . . . I am a music lover because I love people. I am always looking for ways to communicate that love through music – to reach out, to create opportunities to make music for everybody.”

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