Debut engagements with major orchestras are obviously key for any up-and-coming conductor, but even more important are second visits. First engagements are based on a conductor’s reputation elsewhere, but a return invitation means that the inaugural visit went well. “The second one depends on you,” said Slovak maestro Juraj Valčuha. “[It] is really based on your quality and relationship with the orchestra.”
Valčuha has had those all-important return engagements with American orchestras such as the Pittsburgh Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra, where he was back for a second time in early May. Next up are debuts Aug. 6 with the Cleveland Orchestra as part of the Blossom Music Festival and June 1 and 3-4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Orchestras like Chicago and Cleveland are extremely famous and extremely important,” he said. “I just try to think about making music and doing my job in the best possible way.”
In Chicago, Valčuha will conclude his program with a work he conducts often: the suite from Richard Strauss’ popular 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier. “Inside of this opera is some of the most beautiful music ever written by Richard Strauss,” he said. It has been seven years since it was last performed on a CSO subscription-series program, and he thinks the suite’s lighter feel is ideal for a spring concert. Complementing the waltzes heard in the suite, Valčuha will lead the CSO in the Emperor Waltz by the “other Strauss” — Johann Strauss II, the 19th-century Viennese composer known as “The Waltz King.”
Opening the concert will be another Viennese work: Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 (The Queen), which the CSO last performed in 2006. It will be followed by the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1922) by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. “It’s really great music,” Valčuha said. “It’s not very often played. It’s not standard repertoire for violin. But their repertoire is incredibly rich and, sometimes, it’s good to play something less known, something different and not only the [same] four or five concertos.”
Famed German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who will serve as soloist, has been a champion of this French-tinged, modernist concerto, recording it in 2010 with conductor Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic. Valčuha has conducted it several times, including a set of concerts in November 2014 with Tetzlaff and the Montréal Symphony. Claude Gingras, a music critic with Montreal’s La Presse, lavished praise on Tetzlaff’s playing and complimented Valčuha’s podium work: “The guest conductor and the orchestra brought the ideal framing, rich in colors, which re-established in all its dimensions this work, which nonetheless remains very mysterious.”
Born in 1976 in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city, Valčuha attended the city’s conservatory before continuing podium studies with Ilya Musin in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Janos Fürst at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris. From 2003 through 2005, he served as assistant conductor of the Opéra and Orchestre National de Montpellier, but much of his recent work has been with Italian opera houses and orchestras.
From 2009 through 2016, when James Conlon replaced him, he served as principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Natzionale Della Rai in Turin. Although the ensemble is hardly a household name in the United States, it is considered one of the world’s leading radio orchestras. The official ensemble of RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana), the Italian public broadcasting network, it was restructured in 1994 when the radio orchestras of Turin, Rome, Milan and Naples were merged into one ensemble.
In 2016, he was named chief conductor of the Orchestra and Choir of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples; founded in 1737, it is the world’s oldest continuously operating opera house. Valčuha was drawn to the position because of “emotional reasons,” including a special feeling for the city and the hall. “I’m not very objective, but I think that is the most beautiful theater in the world,” he said. As chief conductor, he conducted his first opera there in April: Strauss’ ground-breaking early 20th–century masterpiece Elektra. “It was a really a big start, and it went very well, so I’m very happy to have the possibility to program operas I’m interested in,” he said. Starting in 2017-18, he will conduct three opera productions and three sets of orchestral concerts there each season.
“Being a chief conductor somewhere for several years, for example, in Torino and now this fresh position in Napoli, it gives you the opportunity and possibility and responsibility to make some improvements and progressions with the same ensemble,” he said. “I’m conducting every month or every two months, so this is my responsibility, to get it better.”