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DSO players greet new music director with riotous applause

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Jader Bignamini will conduct this weekend, and three weeks in the 2020-2021 season that starts next fall. 

Jader Bignamini stepped onto the conductor's podium Wednesday morning at Orchestra Hall, grinned at the dozens of musicians in front of him, and momentarily bounced up and down on his toes like an over-excited kid. 

"I hope this is good news for you," said the 43-year-old Italian in clear but accented English, moments after DSO brass announced he's the new music director at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "It sure is for me. I can't wait to start this new adventure."

"Thank you," he added, suddenly going sober, "for believing in me."

The applause, punctuated by enthusiastic war whoops, was deafening. Bignamini, who just arrived in Detroit Monday, beamed. 

The appointment as the DSO's 18th music director after a two-year search is another laurel for the young rising star, who's also resident director at Milan's celebrated Orchestra Sinfonica La Verdi. Bignamini succeeds longtime music director Leonard Slatkin, who stepped into an emeritus position in 2018 as music director laureate.

The native of Crema, Italy, however, is no stranger to the DSO.

In June 2018, he jumped in to conduct "Turandot" when Slatkin had emergency heart-bypass surgery and had to miss the last three concerts of the 2017-18 classical season. Orchestra officials say Bignamini, who started life as a classical clarinetist, struck up an instant and unusual rapport with DSO players. 

For their part, musicians milling around backstage on Wednesday seemed giddy. 

"Oh my god, I’m thrilled," said Principal Clarinetist Ralph Skiano. "I’m like beyond happy. It’s just so much fun making music with him, and I think it genuinely translates to the audience how much we enjoy it."

Assistant Principal Bass Stephen Molina, who was on the search committee, called Bignamini's immediate connection to the musicians "unique," a sentiment shared by Assistant Principal Flute Sharon Sparrow, who cited the "undeniable chemistry" between conductor and players. 

"It was, as we say in Italian, 'amore a prima vista' — love at first sight," Bignamini said during a break in Wednesday's rehearsal for this weekend's program. "It was an incredible chemistry from the first minute I came here. Maybe it was only natural that we found each other."

Unlike many orchestras, the DSO relies on musicians to suggest who they'd like to have as music director.

"The musicians have a process to put candidates on an official list," said DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons. "The board could do that as well, but the practice is we wait for the musicians. That’s our unique culture. With other orchestras, it’s sometimes a more top-down process."

As for her reaction to snagging Bignamini, Parsons said she's had to edit down the number of times she used "thrilled" in emails to colleagues and friends nationwide.

Bignamini will conduct this weekend, and three weeks in the 2020-2021 season that starts next fall. In 2021-2022, he’ll be at the DSO for a full 12 weeks.

The newly minted music director grew up in Crema, outside Milan, and is a graduate of Italy's Piacenza Music Conservatory. Famously, he conducts without a score  to maintain eye contact with musicians. As a teen, Bignamini reportedly conducted in his bedroom at night with a chopstick, years before his professional debut at 28.

While he's conducted some of the world's great orchestras, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna State Opera, Bignamini has spent the largest part of his career — some 15 years — in Milan with La Verdi. He started as a clarinetist, and then rose fast, becoming assistant and then associate conductor, and finally resident director. 

"They believed in me," he said. "I’m so lucky to have grown up in such an orchestra."

Bignamini's won considerable plaudits on this side of the Atlantic.

The South Florida Classical Review wrote, "Under his baton, Orchestra Miami sounded twice its size with dynamic playing from all sections." And following a Tchaikovsky program, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said he and the Milwaukee Orchestra "gave a deftly crafted, beautifully executed performance."

Asked why he picked Detroit, Bignamini cited the DSO's sterling quality as well as Orchestra Hall's famously grand acoustics. But there was something else going on, he suggests, something harder to define. 

"It was not easy to step in for Maestro Slatkin," he said of his 2018 appearance. "But at the same time, I felt like it wasn’t my first time here in Orchestra Hall. It was strange."

An enthusiastic cook and jazz aficionado, Bignamini says he's looking forward to getting to know the Detroit jazz scene. While he has yet to explore the city's cultural offerings, he's got a good idea what's out there. 

"You're famous in the world," he said with a laugh. "We know that you have the DIA with the excellent collection, and Motown and the Detroit Opera House. These things we know."

While plans for where to live while in Detroit are still up in the air, in Italy Bignamini and his wife Lidia — also a clarinetist — have a home in Cremona, near Milan. The couple has two children — a daughter, 15, and a son who's 17.

Musicianship clearly runs in the family — the two play the trumpet and trombone, respectively. 

Detroit audiences will get a chance to welcome their new music director this weekend, when he conducts "Jader Conducts Paganini and Berlioz" Friday-Sunday. The program features Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Augustin Hadelich, and Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Jader Conducts Paganini and Berlioz'

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 3711 Woodward, Detroit 

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Augustin Hadelich 

Berlioz: "Symphonie fantastique"

10:45 a.m. Fri. Jan. 24; 8 p.m. Sat. Jan 25; 3 p.m. Sun. Jan. 26 

Tickets: $15-$105

(313) 576-5111

dso.org