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Hitting the Right Note: Federico Cortese on his 15 years with the BYSO

Over the last 15 years, under the leadership of Federico Cortese, the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra has grown tremendously. The list of accomplishments includes new ensembles, record numbers of applicants, a community outreach program, overseas tours and exciting partnerships.

Federico Cortese conducting Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras in October 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Federico Cortese conducting Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras in October 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

For Cortese, though, it’s all just part of the job.

“I can talk for a long time of all the things that we have created and improved and strengthened — but I think that that’s what one needs to do,” he says, humbly. “I’m happy because we have all worked very hard and the institution has grown, as an institution is supposed to grow. I’m happy and proud of it, and there are still many other things that I’d like to see happen.”

While the Rome-born conductor won’t take all the credit for the BYSO’s success — “It’s really not about me, honestly,” he says — one initiative that developed out of his own passion is a series of semi-staged opera performances that began during the 2007-2008 season.

Cortese said the idea came from thinking about the less-developed areas of Boston’s music community. “The music life in Boston is extremely advanced and sophisticated, with fantastic orchestras and conservatories and all these wonderful things,” he explains. “But I did notice that in the general perception, both of the audience and of the musicians, opera is a bit of a niche thing.”

Federico Cortese conducting Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras in October 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

Federico Cortese conducting Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras in October 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

Yet, Cortese emphasizes that opera was the “bread and butter of most musicians” in the 18th and 19th centuries, and says it’s an essential component for anyone who wishes to have a complete education in classical music. Indeed, it was a big part of Cortese’s studies as a young musician at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Italy, where opera is more deeply rooted in the culture. On the other hand, Cortese notes, his training didn’t focus as much on chamber music as many American conservatories do, which he views as a shortcoming.

So, as music director of the BYSO, Cortese aims for a more comprehensive program and actively shines a light on opera. As for the young musicians who participate in the semi-staged operas, Cortese says, “They love it and have a lot of fun,” although he’s quick to note that they also work very hard and perform to an extremely high standard.

Federico Cortese conducting Rigoletto in January 2013 at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Federico Cortese conducting Rigoletto in January 2013 at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

In January, the Boston Youth Symphony — the BYSO’s most advanced ensemble — presented Puccini’s “Tosca,” and in the past they have performed other tragic operas like “Rigoletto” and “Macbeth.” Next up, is something a little different, as Cortese will conduct the group along with musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a special performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” on March 30. The comedic opera has been shortened and will combine dialogue and puppetry along with the music in one family-friendly spectacle.

“Traditionally [The Magic Flute] has an appeal for children because it has a fairy tale aspect to it and fantastically fresh and wonderful music, that beyond the sophistication and complexity, can also be very accessible for a younger audience,” Cortese explains.

And while performing opera, be it fantastical or traditional, provides a valuable learning experience for the talented young musicians of the BYSO, working with these children also inspires Cortese in ways he never imagined when he took the position 15 years ago.

“At the very beginning, especially because there was a little bit of a language barrier, I did ask myself, ‘What am I going to do with these kids? How am I going to communicate with them?'” he recalls. “And then I didn’t think about it; it just happened. I think they perceive — I hope they do — that I have a true warm feeling for them, a true respect and affection. It’s just wonderful to work together.”

For details, visit www.bysoweb.org.

Federico Cortese during the annual performance of Peter and the Wolf  in November 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Stu Rosner

Federico Cortese during the annual performance of Peter and the Wolf in November 2012 at Symphony Hall. Photo by Stu Rosner

About Briana Palma

Briana Palma is a writer and editor who splits her time between Boston and Dublin, Ireland. Her work focuses on travel, art and lifestyle, and as an Italian-American, she especially enjoys writing about all things Italy. Briana's work has appeared in a number of print and digital publications, including Italy Magazine, the Sunday Business Post Magazine, Outsider and U.S. Airways. For more information, visit www.brianapalma.com.