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Immersion in classical music offers conductor ‘the beauty of being possessed’

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Agrigento, Sicily, has informed the life of Simeone Tartaglione in two important ways.

First: “When you live in a place where the horizon is so far away, you are curious about seeing what’s beyond,” the conductor and pianist said of his hometown and his bold decision in 2005 to move to snowy Colorado. “I didn’t know exactly where Denver was. It was a culture shock.”

Second: The way that Agrigento lies in the shadow of Palermo – its more populous, more influential neighbor – reminds him of how Wilmington lies in the shadow of Philadelphia. Yet “it’s important to cultivate our local musicians, our local talent and making them proud to be in Delaware.”

ANDRE LAMAR PHOTO COURTESY OF SIMEONE TARTAGLIONE

He lives in Maryland, near his main job as associate professor of practice, orchestra conductor, conducting professor and orchestral and conducting area head at Catholic University in Washington.

He’s also music director of the Newark Symphony and the Delaware Youth Symphony Orchestra; orchestral department head of the Music School of Delaware; co-founder and artistic director of the Musica Viva Kentlands Summer Festival; and symphony conductor of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras at Strathmore Hall. 

No wonder that he’s put 85,000 miles on his car in the last half-dozen years, even with the pandemic shutdown. “Like a hummingbird, I go here and there for my jobs.” 

His father (a tax policeman) and his mother (a middle school teacher) at first encouraged him to pursue a more traditional career, but then they witnessed his commitment, which eventually included multiple degrees from institutions in Italy and the United States. And they also know that classical music is in his blood. “I don’t believe that classical music is for the elite,” he said, repeating the story of his grandmother, an illiterate opera fan.

“The difference between classical music and pop music is the layers, how deep you can go,” he said. “You can listen to a beautiful pop song a few times, and you can master all the elements. But when you go in for, say, a Beethoven symphony, you can get the superficial beauty in the first layer. But then you can spend all of your life, like I do, going over it again, discovering something deeper, something stronger, something extraordinary. And even discovering something about yourself.”

He said his most important discovery was “the beauty of being possessed. I can be angry. I can be starving. The moment I plant my baton with the sound, it’s like I don’t exist anymore. … Every time I am sick, and I go to a rehearsal, I come out better. It’s a miracle. It also works emotionally. You let it go over yourself and let it become one thing in your ears, your eyes and your mind.” 

His repertoire on simeonetartaglione.com lists about 100 composers of orchestral pieces and operas, and he’s made an especially deep commitment to study composer Teresa Procaccini, with an English translation of his book about her due this year. He has also
recorded several audios and videos as conductor
and pianist in duo with his wife, violinist Alessandra Cuffaro, the first Italian woman to perform the hardest violin solo collection – Paganini’s 24 Capricci – in one concert.

When asked which of the hundreds of pieces in his repertoire he would bring to that deserted island, he singled out Beethoven but significantly said “I can bring my entire library, because it’s already in my mind palace.”

As a conductor, “my goal is to go for what the composer wanted,” and that means treating each composer differently. He acknowledges that classical music has evolved. The instruments have changed, with the strings more vibrant, the brass louder and the instruments tuned differently, after Nazi Germany and several other countries went for 440 hertz, because Chancellor Adolf Hitler followed the belief that a higher intonation made Wagner’s music more impactful on the listeners – but not for other composers like Verdi, who favored 432 hertz. “Today, we are still suffering from it, especially in opera” he said.

Tartaglione and Cuffaro are raising two daughters, Erica and Sofia, and they visit Italy frequently. “Basically, Sicily with the family,” he said. “You do your pilgrimage.”

Once the kids “go to school, they become Americans,” he said. “But at home, we speak Italian, and they also speak with their hands. It’s like a sign language.”