SCOTT SIMON, host:
Carlo Ponti Jr. believes that classical music is just music, after all. He's trying to make it popular and appreciated among more people. Mr. Ponti is the music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra in California. He's also featured as the conductor on the new CD, "Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition," by the Russian National Orchestra. Carlo Ponti Jr. joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. CARLO PONTI Jr. (Director and Music Conductor): Thank you, Mr. Simon. It's a pleasure to be on your show.
SIMON: I don't know how you became a musician, and let's note for our audience, of course, your father was perhaps the most famous world film producer of his time, Carlo Ponti and your mother, still the most beautiful woman in the world, I'd say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Sophia Loren. How did you find your way to music?
Mr. PONTI: Well, it was always something that I - that came to me quite naturally. I was a pianist by trade. But I must say, whenever I performed in piano, whenever I performed in public, I always had, you know, specific adrenaline which we all have. But in that situation, it didn't work for me. It sort of froze me instead of freeing me, you know. And when I'm on a podium, when I'm conducting an orchestra in a concert, that extra kind of adrenaline really gives me the edge that I need to make the concert exciting.
SIMON: And why is it important to you to bring new audiences to classical music?
Mr. PONTI: Because I think that classical music especially with youth and with the students in the school, with whom I work very closely in San Bernardino, desperately need specific education in the musical classics, were it not only for the fact that it teaches them how to live, it teaches them how to be organized, it teaches them organized thought...
SIMON: Mm hmm.
Mr. PONTI: It teaches them how to have a community, how to be unified, things I think that young people in this day and age really, really need.
SIMON: And classical features some of these disciplines more than some other forms of music?
Mr. PONTI: Well, I think it does in a way, because classical music is really cooperating between players whether it's, you know, chamber music or a big symphony orchestra, the concept of cooperation is always there, and also the concept of interaction, of listening to one another - those are all things I think that are mirrored in social life.
SIMON: You go into the schools a lot, I gather.
Mr. PONTI: Mm hmm.
SIMON: And do you find things changing? Because there doesn't seem to be a youngster in the United States or Western Europe now that doesn't have a set of earbuds in his or her ears.
Mr. PONTI: That's very true, but the school, you know, at least in this country are - not so much in Europe, but in this country are very much lacking in specific education in music, and sadly the first thing that get cuts of the curriculum is the music classes, you know, so it's something that we've had to really fight against, you know, in America because the general public is not as informed and so tends not to support symphonic music so much, whereas in Europe it's much more part - a mandatory part of the school program, and so you have a population group which is informed and which supports much more symphonic music.
SIMON: I want to play a clip of music now from a piece that you say, if somebody wants to acquire a good working interest in classical music, they should begin with this.
(Soundbite of "Ninth Symphony" by Beethoven)
SIMON: Now why Beethoven's Ninth, Mr. Ponti?
Mr. PONTI: Because Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I've done it many, many times in concert and I always found that even if the audience is constituted of people that are not very much informed about classical music, it's such an organic symphony, and the flow of it is so natural, and the themes that he chose are so universal that anybody can be - if it's done of course right, if it's interpreted right, anybody almost can be touched by his message.
(Soundbite of music by Mussorgsky)
SIMON: Tell us, if you could, about Mussorgsky?
Mr. PONTI: Mussorsky was a composer of the romantic era - a Russian composer of the Romantic period. And he was a very talented composer, but he had the quite nasty habit of liking to have a good time a little bit too much and he liked to drink a little bit. And so he never really pulled works to their full fruition, meaning that he started and then he never finished them really. He never, you know, wrote them for full orchestra, he always left them in piano reduction form because he did not finish his work. And so he left to others the task of specifically orchestrating his works. And with the case of "Pictures at an Exhibition" it started out as a work for solo piano and Maurice Ravel, which is a French composer and very famous orchestrator of the 20th century, took upon himself to transcribe the work for full orchestra.
(Soundbite of orchestral version of Mussorsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition")
SIMON: I'm told your wife is a violinist?
Mr. PONTI: She's a violinist, yes.
SIMON: And you have a two-year-old son?
Mr. PONTI: Yes, almost two years old.
SIMON: Now have you met any of these American couples who, literally when they're pregnant, will hold the speaker playing classical music to the stomach of the expectant mother?
Mr. PONTI: Well, there's many ideologies I think, and I don't discredit any of them, I mean my son Vittorio was - I remember when he was still in the womb I was learning Schumann's First Symphony, you know, the Spring symphony of his.
SIMON: What do you mean, he was learning? He was still in the womb? (Laughing)
Mr. PONTI: No, I was learning.
SIMON: Oh, you were learning, OK, yeah.
Mr. PONTI: I was, kind of love it. I was - or maybe also he was learning, who knows? And so I think, you know, he might, you know, when he hears it again in a few years it might sound familiar.
SIMON: Mr. Ponti, thanks so much for your time.
Mr. PONTI: Thank you, thank you. It was a pleasure.
SIMON: Carlo Ponti Jr., music director and principal conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra joining us from our studios at NPR West, and this is music from Mussorsky, "Pictures at an Exhibition," by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Carlo Ponti Jr.
(Soundbite of "Pictures at an Exhibition")
SIMON: And you can hear recordings of Carlo Ponti's work on one of our Web sites, nprmusic.org.
(Soundbite of "Pictures at an Exhibition")