Francesca Dego is one of the most sought out young violinists on the international scene. We caught up with her before she performs at Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series this January.
Before she was born, Francesca Dego’s father was a lecturer at Leeds University for six years in the late 1960s, teaching Italian literature.
“He’s always spoken so much of Leeds as one of the best places he lived and taught!” Francesca says speaking from her home in Milan.
It seems a long way from Italy.
The 27 year-old violinist has a love of elegant fashion. Her Instagram account features selfies under #Italiangirl with statements such as ‘Confidence is sexy. Wear it daily.’ She’s been featured in the pages of Italian Vogue, alongside her husband, the brilliant young conductor Daniele Rustioni, who she married in the glamourous setting of Lake Como.
In 2008, she became the first Italian female prize winner of the renowned Paganini Competition since 1961, as well as being the youngest finalist. She went on to score a recording contract with the Deutsche Grammophon label when most of her peers were still finishing graduate school.
“It was a turning point, not one at the time I recall fondly,” she says. “It was really stressful for me. I lost six kilo during the competition. I’ve never actually reacted that well in life to competitions. I always give my best on stage as I feel there’s something very positive in the air, but I think competitions can be very heavy and squash your sense of optimism and positivity. I’ve always disliked that side of it.”
The pressures of perfection echo’s UK violinist Nigel Kennedy’s recent remarks accusing music colleges and record companies of producing ‘factory lines’ of violinists that end up all sounding the same. Musicians are so terrified of playing a wrong note in the focus on technique and strive for perfection, he claims, individuality is ‘stifled’.
Francesca agrees to an extent: “It’s definitely changed over the past decade. We are confronted with an ideal of perfection that isn’t possible in a live performance, people are expected to be like a CD when they play live…but in the end it’s about communicating with the audience and that’s what the audience appreciates and feels. If we’re looking at the top musicians today, we’re in a pretty good place.”
Recently, she was picked by BBC Music Magazine as a Rising Star, but as she’s been playing for over a decade, she insists her career has developed organically.
“One of the most inspiring things in a career is the possibility to meet and collaborate with amazing people. This is the most enriching thing, not what you achieve CV wise but the people – conductors and colleagues – you get to play with.”
Francesca cites her dad as her biggest influence in taking up the violin.
“Classical music was always a very strong passion for him – if he had another life he would have been a professional violinist. He was always playing when I was young. My parents realised I had perfect pitch, my mum started teaching me notes and to sing and my dad taught me the violin. There was a passion in the family.”
Her father was born in northern Italy of Catholic descent, her Jewish mother in New York (Francesca lived in the States between the ages of five and seven). As such, she says she never felt a very strong national identity, but Italy is home. “I’m very much in love with living in Italy – it will always remain a base for me somehow.”
Francesca admits music is ‘all consuming’, with her husband’s career too. “We don’t see each other much! But I think it’s a passion, it’s not a burden. I feel very privileged to be able to do this as a job.”
In 2017, she’ll be releasing a new recording performing a Violin Concerto composed in the early 1940s by the Italian composer, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.
Audiences in Harrogate will experience a glimpse of her passion for the pre-war Italian composers.
“I’ve been looking in these past years into bringing to a wider audience some of the 20th century Italian composers that have been placed less over the last 60 years. I’ll be playing a piece by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. After WW2, in Italy everyone wanted to break off with the post-romantic past, it was abandoned. It’s great to rediscover these composers.”
One of the striking things about Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series is the number of young musicians it features, including in 2017, 27-year-old clarinettist Julian Bliss, and 33 year-old pianist Alessandro Taverna. And yet, audiences stereotypically are of the grey-haired variety.
“It does seem like the audience of young people are less and less,” Francesca agreed, “but if you look at young professionals, this world is getting even more competitive.”
She puts the lost generations of audiences down to education, stating the fact music is no longer on the school curriculum in the UK as ‘terrible’.
“In school, if you study the History of Art at least if you go into a museum you know what’s surrounding you, but if you don’t know anything about it you’re less likely to go into the museum. It’s about the future public, which is of course a bit of a tragedy for us.”
There have been many young musicians who sex up their image or but a rock ‘n’ roll spin on classical to break down these barriers.
“I don’t think that if everyone had the right access to classical music that you’d need to sell it to young people. Young people who grow up with knowledge of it, love it on its own.”
She cites how Operas were like musicals in Italy until the last century, hummed on the streets, seen as popular music. If music was taught in schools, she feels the future would change.
“It should be everywhere in school, then all these problems would go away, because you wouldn’t need to explain it to young people who have misplaced ideas that it’s too difficult, or boring, or it’s not fashionable – that whole series of problems you encounter.”
She feels it’s particularly sad that Europe, where classical music was born, is now lagging compared to Asia, where there’s an enormous boom of children studying classical music.
“I don’t think the death of classical music is anywhere near. There might be movement to other markets or parts of the world, but it will always be important and part of humanity.”
“Even with first time concert goers, music communicates to each listener in a different way. It’s about feeling any kind of emotion. It’s an intimate experience with yourself. Everyone experiences it alone even if you’re sitting together. That’s the amazing thing about music, everyone has that moment of locking themselves in their own brain. I urge people to give it a try, because they might have a closed view of something they haven’t heard. Classical music is so enormous – you have baroque, opera, you have instrumental chamber music, great symphonic orchestras – everyone should at least try to get an idea of what speaks to them, because I don’t believe people who say I don’t like classical music. It’s just too big a door to close.”
Francesca Dego, violin, with Francesca Leonardi, piano, perform on Sunday 29 January, 11am at the Old Swan Hotel as part of Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series which runs till April. Full programme www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com Box Office: 01423 562 303.