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Classical 101

Introducing Conductor Carlo Ponti

"To this very day I cannot believe that my mother is who she is," said conductor Carlo Ponti of the Academy Award-winning actress Sophia Loren. "She's so down-to-earth that it’s hard for me to believe that she’s such a legendary artist." Ponti says his parents - Loren and the noted Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, Sr. - through their careers steeped him in the craft and lore of the cinema. But as avid music lovers, they also unwittingly gave their son's life its own soundtrack. "They were constantly playing all sorts of genres of music, anything from pop music to classical music," Ponti said. "From very early on I was exposed to the music of the masters, of Tchaikovsky, of Beethoven. Their symphonic works were always playing in the house, so my ear was attuned to that music, and I really liked it from very early on." Little surprise, then, that Ponti now enjoys an upwardly mobile career as an orchestral conductor, serving as music director of California's San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra and as guest conductor of an expanding roster of ensembles worldwide. He has released two recordings of Russian music with the Russian National Orchestra and is beginning to make forays into the world of opera conducting. This evening, in Rome, he leads the Rome Sinfonietta in a special tribute concert of music from his father's films and of some of his mother's favorite Neapolitan popular songs. From Piano To Podium Like many musically inclined youngsters, Ponti got involved in music through piano lessons. It was his father who first suggested he become a conductor. "He saw me very inclined towards music, that I really liked it, so he always bestowed his dream on me to become an orchestral conductor," Ponti said of his father. "So he would see me playing the piano and (say), 'Oh, you should try to look into conducting,' so that sort of thing was always in the back of my mind." In his early 20s, Ponti attended the Hartford, Conn., Conductor's Institute (now at Bard College), where he had a chance to study conducting with the noted conducting pedagogue Harold Farberman. Ponti was hooked. "From my first impact with an orchestra and from the reaction of the musicians, of a lot of the staff of the (Conductor's Institute), I straight away got a lot of positivity out of it and I really liked it. I could really express myself musically much better than on an instrument. So ... slowly, I just chose that path," Ponti said. Sister Arts With his family background in film, Ponti could have chosen any number of paths in the cinema. As different as movies and classical music seem to be, Ponti says his parents' work strongly informs his work as an orchestral conductor. "Conducting, per se, as a profession, as a musical activity, is a sister discipline to what my mother does and to a certain extent, what my father (did)," Ponti said. "He was a producer, so by trade he’s a very instinctual person, he’s somebody who needs to have an instinct on where people’s talents lie, on what people are more prone towards doing than others. And I think he always saw in me a certain kind of predisposition towards the conducting profession. I’m naturally a very communicative person visually, I’m very bubbly, I’m very intense." Ponti says he learned the importance of dramatic timing from watching his mother at work in her films. "I think her body of work, how she approaches the craft of acting, is so dedicated and so detail oriented, that really rubbed off on both me. I think that’s something that really comes forth in my recordings. You really feel that I prioritize close attention to the score and to details," Ponti said. "A conductor first and foremost has to be an interpreter. And so interpretation and ultimately timing, in acting, as in playing music, is very important. So I really prioritize timing and a very close attention to how the musical events progress in time, what musical event happens exactly at that moment – if it happens a little bit earlier that’s not right, a bit later it’s not right either." Beyond Classical Even as Ponti continues his work conducting the classical concert and symphonic repertoire, he is expanding his repertoire in other directions. He says he'd welcome an opportunity to apply his family background in the cinema  and his opera know-how to conducting operas. In his concert this evening with the Rome Sinfonietta, Ponti will highlight film music by some of the great composers in that genre, including Nino Rota, Maurice Jarre and Armando Trovaioli. And while he remains tight lipped about the details of his next recording, he does say it will be a distinct change of pace from his previous recording projects, venturing into more contemporary music. "(The recording) will go on a different path than my first two CD's as far as programming is concerned, so that’s very exciting," Ponti said. Stay tuned to Classical 101 to hear more of Carlo Ponti's work.