Andy Kenins remembers the first time he ever talked to Elisa Citterio, whose appointment as music director of Toronto's famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was announced on Thursday. It was the spring of 2015, and Kenins was head of the search committee that was two years in to the process of replacing Jeanne Lamon, who had retired as music director in 2014. Citterio had not been among the first group of candidates Tafelmusik talked with because, despite her impressive résumé, she flew just under the radar in the male-dominated world of contemporary Italian baroque performance and performers.
"I can remember that conversation very well," says Kenins, a former chair of the Tafelmusik board of directors. "It was a fascinating discussion because, even though her English wasn't perfect, it was amazing how well she was able to express herself. Her interest and enthusiasm really stood out. It wasn't hard, coupled with her YouTube videos and references, to decide to invite her to be a guest soloist with the orchestra as part of the selection process"
Citterio herself remembers that call, too. "How can I forget it?" she says. "I was so frightened about not understanding the North American accent very well – although now it sounds better to me than the British one! However, Andy was so kind. I remember that the atmosphere of the call was so warm that any worry disappeared in a few seconds."
Almost 18 months later, after Citterio's first November, 2015, concert and a second one she led this past September, Kenins was able to phone her again in October to offer her the job. "She was really excited with her partner. It was a great, great moment for both of us."
Citterio adds: "I had just finished feeding my four-month-old baby when the call came. Sometimes the news that changes your life comes at the most normal moments."
Tafelmusik is high on Citterio as they hand over to her one of the finest period orchestras in the world, lovingly crafted into a tight, passionate ensemble by Lamon in her 33 years as music director. First and foremost, it's Citterio's abilities as a musician that win her praise.
"We've seen some great violinists over the years at Tafelmusik, but she really breaks the mould in that department," says oboist John Abberger, who was also on Tafelmusik's search committee. "She is one of the most stunning players I've ever heard in my entire career. And she brings a really exciting approach to playing music that we found compelling. It's that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that we were looking for."
Inevitably, Tafelmusik's success during the Lamon era brings risks to her successor, as well as opportunities. Citterio seems prepared to meet both – personally and professionally. Not only will she be taking on a new artistic challenge, she'll be moving her family to a new continent as well.
"Every big decision brings something and takes something away," she says. "I am worried about being so far away from my family. And about your winter, which I've never experienced before. But your country is famous the world over for being child-friendly, for having an excellent education system, for being open to immigration and for having a high level of culture. I think I just need a very warm jacket."
As for melding into Tafelmusik's collaborative approach, Citterio is less concerned. "I'm from Italy, and some of the things you've heard about my country are actually true. Sometimes we are a very noisy people, with more of a passion for the coffee break than the rehearsal," she says. "Tafelmusik's musicians were so silent, so well-organized and cozy that I felt like I was being welcomed into a big family, eager to study together."
If there's one person who has some idea of what awaits Citterio, it is, of course, Lamon.
"It's a great job," she says, "a wonderful adventure. To have an orchestra of this calibre handed to you, to be told, you do what you want, we want to hear what you want to say."
About Citterio herself, Lamon adds, "She's what I call a Tafelmusik person – and that's not just a musical thing, although it's partly a musical thing. She's wise, she's warm, she's collaborative, she's smart, she works hard. She's going to fit in perfectly."