"To vibrate this note would be inappropriate," says the conductor, managing to very effectively convey to the orchestra musicians his desire to have us do away with most of our ingrained Romantic traditions when playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, written before the title "Romantic music" was even uttered, and in an era when the technique of vibrato was used very sparingly.
"Violas can be more expressive, I know that, because I am married to a violist," he says, making a viola joke on the spot.
"Count like you count your money," he quips, displaying his true Swiss roots (with a German accent and an Italian name) after some wind players miscounted the measure he wanted to restart with.
These are quotes from the BSO's Tuesday morning rehearsal with one of our most beloved guest conductors, the immensely funny and likable Mario Venzago. They may portray an almost childish personality, full of humor and joy of life, but may also sound a bit insincere. However, while Mario has the entertainment capability of a stand-up comic (and one with a very charming accent), he is anything but insincere. He is a very serious musician, one that dives very deep into every note, phrase and movement of every piece he rehearses and performs, and emerges with a net-full of the richest musical expression that is backed up by years of exploring music at the highest level. And he manages to do it all with an unending smile and flair that always puts the orchestra in the best of moods. When someone is that much into music, one can't help but get involved with them, and go to great lengths to please them, even if one doesn't necessarily agree with every musical idea.
"This sounds like acne," he says of some unwanted accents in a lyrical phrase that the cello section just played.
"You now go to sleep, true artists need sleep," he tells the winds as he is about to spend time rehearsing some bumpy passages in the strings.
"Trumpets are 40, no, 42% too loud, he specifies, again drawing on the background of his native country, where I remember the Alpine trains having a timetable that looked just like that (13:34, 13:59, 14:07), and actually managed to adhere to it!
"If you play it like this, I have to go to court," he mocks, with gratitude, when the brass manages a sound he asked for that is nowadays rarely produced in Beethoven's Fifth outside of the so-called Performance Practice ensembles, the ones that include as much of the techniques from the composers' era as possible.
I have known Mario since I was 14, as a young violinist representing my native country of Yugoslavia on two successive European Youth Orchestra Summer Tours, which were both based in Switzerland, and during which he was our Assistant Conductor. He hasn't changed one bit, and that's a good thing.
Come and enjoy his musical artistry in concert this week, with Schubert's Fifth and Berg's beautiful Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride as a soloist.
P.S. Oh, and if you don't know who Mr. Bean (a.k.a. actor Rowan Atkinson) is, check him out as he conducts a band playing holiday carols.