Unlike the usual suspects – piano, violin – you don’t often hear of children taking on the French horn, but musician Francesco ‘Frankie’ Lo Surdo has been playing the instrument since he was nine. “It kind of chose me,” he tells Seesaw’s Nina Levy. “I played trumpet for a year in primary school and then they gave my rented trumpet to another kid. They said, ‘We don’t have a horn player, you’re playing horn.’ A lot of musicians have stories like that. It’s not romantic, it’s just a mistake at primary school.”
Born in Sydney, Lo Surdo attended Newtown High School of the Performing Arts and played in the Sydney Youth Orchestra before completing a Bachelor of Music Performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2005. His transition from student to professional was organic and he began to take professional gigs whilst at university. “I was very lucky – at the end of my first year I auditioned for casual work in the Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Sydney,” he says. “I managed to pass that audition and so from the beginning of my second year I was thrown in the deep end, playing in that orchestra. I did that for ten years. I learned more about playing in an orchestra there than I did at university, and I was getting paid. I owe a lot to that orchestra.”
It was opportunity that brought Lo Surdo to WA and to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO). “Beggars can’t be choosers,” he says with a laugh. More seriously, he continues, “In music there’s not that many jobs around the world, let alone in Australia. You have to audition for everything and you end up where you end up. I’d been lucky enough to have done some casual work at WASO for a couple of years before I moved here and, I thought then and I still think it now, it really is the friendliest orchestra in the country. I’d probably done 15 auditions before I did WASO. I’m very lucky to have ended up here.”
“Think about Seinfeld – every time they switch to a new scene, it’s a slightly different bass line, a different leitmotif. Every time there’s a different character in Wagner’s operas, they have a different theme or tune. There were other composers who did that before him, but he took it to the next level.”
One of the reasons that jobs are so competitive is that openings don’t come up very often in orchestras, explains Lo Surdo. “In an orchestra, when you get a job, you hang onto it for a long time. As an example, the guy I sit next to in the orchestra has had his job for over 25 years and that’s quite common. There are violinists in the orchestra who are coming up to 40 years in the one job. It’s like a sports team – you get used to your team, and you want to build on that. You’re not a soloist, you’re a team player.”
And that team will be taking on one of music’s biggest names this September… Wagner. For Lo Surdo, WASO’s upcoming two-concert series “Wagner & Beyond” is of particular interest, but he acknowledges that the composer’s work is divisive. “I consider Wagner to be a bit like vegemite,” he reflects. “You either love it or you hate it.”
Lo Surdo, who has seen Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the Festspielhaus (Bayreuth, Germany), the theatre designed by the great composer specifically for the staging of his operas, is a fan.
So for those who aren’t familiar with the nineteenth century German composer, where does he fit into the pantheon of music history?
“Wagner was an opera composer. What he did differently was that he was one of the only composers who wrote both the libretto and music,” says Lo Surdo. “The thing he is known for is that he wanted his major works to be not just music, or opera but the ‘total work of art’ [gesamtkunstwerk in German], where it’s not just music, it’s theatre, language, music, all in one. That’s seen in the Ring Cycle. He was unique in that way.
“When I went to his Festspielhaus, which he built specifically for his works, [I saw that] he’s done really unusual things to bring across the music-drama (he doesn’t call it opera), like completely covering the orchestra pit, so that no light comes from the pit; even exit signs – there are no exit signs. So there is the ability to go pitch black. He wanted to create that. All the seats are wood. You see wealthy people carrying their own cushions, to sit through eight hour operas. Even the way the pit is designed is totally unique. He went to all these efforts to bring about this holistic ‘perfect’ art-form.”
In terms of composition, Wagner is known for his experiments in harmony and tonality. “The best example of this is in his opera Tristan und Isolde,” remarks Lo Surdo. “There’s a chord in it that is just labelled “the Tristan chord”, because it has this distinctive clash in it. Technically it’s hard to explain, but it has this incredible feeling to it.”
“A lot of film music is influenced by Wagner. It’s very epic.”
Wagner is also considered to be the first composer to make significant use of leitmotif, a specific musical theme to identify a particular character or concept. “Think about Seinfeld – every time they switch to a new scene, it’s a slightly different bass line, a different leitmotif,” explains Lo Surdo. “Every time there’s a different character in Wagner’s operas, they have a different theme or tune. There were other composers who did that before him, but he took it to the next level – his leitmotifs were a lot more expressive.”
Politically, Wagner has a bad reputation, with evidence of anti-semitism in both his writings and characters. In addition, his music was greatly admired by Hitler and is associated with the Nazi Party. “Stephen Fry actually did a documentary on this,” remarks Lo Surdo. “But Wagner came so far before Hitler. Hitler took on Wagner’s music and turned it into something that it’s not and then, unfortunately, it’s been associated with Nazism ever since. It’s so sad. Our chief conductor, Asher Fisch, is Jewish, is Israeli, and Wagner is banned in Israel. It’s interesting that Asher Fisch, an Israeli, is so into Wagner, and is trying to get it played in that country, but it looks like it will never happen.”
And what is the appeal of Wagner from a musician’s perspective?
“It’s definitely the tonality – a lot of film music is influenced by Wagner. It’s very epic,” replies Lo Surdo “Also I often get to play Wagner tuba so that’s very exciting. We only get to play the Wagner tubas maybe once a year.”
Yes – Wagner has his own instrument.
“Wagner invented the Wagner tuba to give across a different timbre,” says Lo Surdo. “It’s halfway between a French horn and a tuba. It has this singing, almost ‘male choir’ timbre. It never goes very bright, it’s dark sounding, and it’s always written for four of them. They’re notoriously hard to play in tune! Even though you play them the same way you play a French horn, the feel is very different – you often see a group of stressed people sitting at the back [when an orchestra is playing Wagner].”
It’s a pretty big ask, having to play an instrument that’s not actually your instrument, but Lo Surdo feels that it’s part of Wagner’s genius. “The Wagner tuba is just another example of Wagner being so much more complex, that he went to the trouble of making his own instrument.”
– Nina Levy
Top: Francesco Lo Surdo is seated, second from left. Photo: Emma van Dordrecht.