CONDUCTING a secco (drily) was how Carlo Ponti got into conducting, and a secco is still how he begins to learn a score. Ponti, who will be in Cape Town to conduct Peter and the Wolf with the Cape Town Philharmonic (CPO) and the CP Youth Orchestra on November 13, says this means he sings the score. In other words, he conducts to voice and not orchestra, or even string ensemble! He still does it!

“Zubin Mehta’s father Mehli taught me this,” he says, “and it is an intrinsic part of how I learn an orchestral score. Mehli was a great influence on my life. When I finally took my father’s advice (his father is, of course, the late great film producer of the same name) to move from piano performance to conducting, this constituted the first week of my course in Connecticut.”

Ponti began his musical life as a pianist, “too old at 9 to really ever go far. I had always enjoyed the idea of conducting but not really considered it until I realized that I didn’t have the personality for instrumental performance.” Until he found conducting, that is, and turned the nervousness into positive adrenaline to inspire his musicians.

It was clearly pre-ordained that conductor Carlo Ponti should come to Cape Town. Being the friend of Pieter Dirk-Uys for years - Uys and Ponti’s mother Sophia Loren have long admired each other’s work and been friends forever. Their shared love of developing young people to their full potential was the common ground.

Uys began his Darling Trust to help the young people of the Darling area; Ponti donates all proceeds of the concert income he receives from his Los Angeles Virtuosi Orchestra (LAV) to music education in Los Angeles, and works a lot with the young.

So how could they work together? Uys brought in another friend: Louis Heyneman of the CPO). The result? Uys’s most beloved Evita Bezuidenhout narrating Peter and Wolf, while Ponti will inspire the CPYO and CPO.

Ponti is looking forward to this immensely. “ I enjoy the energy of young people and their willingness to learn.” Proceeds from the concert will go to the Darling Trust and the CPYO.

Ponti originally studied piano and received his Master’s in piano performance from the University of Southern California.

“It took 25 years for me to realize that piano was not my future and to listen to my father, so I finally enrolled in a course with Harold Farberman, a legendary American conductor and teacher, and went to the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. In the first week, all we did was sing the scores; in the second week we worked with a string quartet, in the third a string orchestra and in the fourth, finally, a full orchestra. It was excellent grounding, a good fit for me – to inspire others. I went back to LA and enrolled in a Master’s in conducting at the University of California. In those next two years until I graduated in 1998, I had a lot of time with the student orchestra – my first concert with a full orchestra was 20 years ago on February 21, 1996 and I will never forget the feeling. Working with a student orchestra allows you to learn from your and their mistakes. Working with a world-class orchestra means there cannot be mistakes so the stress levels are the same!”

On graduation, a friend made the introductions to the Russian National Orchestra.

Ponti was invited to audition for music director Mikhail Pletnev, and was invited to give his first concert with the orchestra in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in 1998. He recalls with a smile how he rehearsed a speech for the dress rehearsal of that first concert, begging the musicians to follow him. He never had to deliver it. It worked so well that two years later he was appointed associate conductor and still happily is.

One of the things Ponti is most proud of his LAV, which he founded in 2013: “It is the only orchestra I know of that donates 100% of concert income to education. Of course this means we have to work hard to get the concerts sponsored, but it also means that concert-goers have the satisfaction of knowing that what they pay goes straight to education.”

LAV’s musicians are drawn from the top orchestras in the area, shored up with good freelancers; the orchestra performs three concerts a year. Ponti spends much of his life in LA, with his Hungarian violinist wife Andrea Mészáros and two children, Vittorio (9) and Beatrice (4), who, he says, have the potential to become musicians!

The concert also includes Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which will be narrated by actor Daniel Richard, and will open with the CPYO performing such sparkling works as arrangements from Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Dance as well as Finlandia by Sibelius, a Strauss polka and The Swan from Carnival of the Animals. The concert takes place at the Cape Town City Hall on November 13 at 6pm.

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