Carlo Goldstein, a conducting rarity

February 25, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Brought to Australia to conduct the John Bell production of Carmen in the Sydney Opera House, Carlo Goldstein’s very name raises a smile. And when he tells his story, he emerges as a rarity in the world of classical music performance…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Carlo Goldstein         Courtesy: Opera Australia

Old conductors tend to stick around, clogging the pathway for the young to break through while they suffer long bouts of unemployment until a defining moment puts them into the spotlight. For Goldstein, it was winning a prestigious conducting competition in Graz (Austria) in 2009 at the age of 30. That brought him to the attention of critics, programmers and then audiences. Now just 40, his dance card is filling up with appearances around the world conducting leading orchestras, not only in the opera pit, but also on the podium of orchestral concerts.

Goldstein looks every part the young conductor: lean, with a profuse tangle of black hair above a stubble, and a striking, mobile face that partners his gestures. His mannerisms are passionately Italian and Jewish at the same time. That’s part of his rarity. He’s double-barreled when it comes to culture. His interests roam way outside music, too. As well as being a conservatorium graduate in piano and conducting, he holds a PhD in aesthetics.

Unlike many music luminaries, Goldstein was not a child prodigy. His family in Trieste was strongly musical, some of them professionals, but his boyhood was “just like any Italian kid growing up. In fact, I was a lazy student,” he says. Then, in his mid teens, he began to feel inexorably draw to music and, encouraged by his mother, enrolled in the Trieste Conservatorium. Even then he was ambling along until a teacher became an inspiring mentor and propelled young Carlo through to graduation in piano performance and then on to post-graduate conducting.

“I didn’t like conducting at first,” Goldstein recalls, “but then I found I was quite good at it and I got seriously involved.” Another rarity is his belief that anybody can make it in the arts, that inborn ability is grossly overrated. He believes it is much more to do with how dedicated you are to your craft; how much you want it.

With that as his mainspring one might expect Goldstein to have a smouldering, intense personality, but he’s just the opposite. He’s light-hearted, laughs easily, acknowledges life’s absurdities. And underlying all that he is steeped in the Jewish tradition of family and tribe. So much travel works against an observant Jewish lifestyle but the source is always with him.

Goldstein was engaged to conduct eight performances of Carmen at the Opera House. What does he think of the improvements made to the Opera Theatre interior?

“Because this is my first time in Sydney, I didn’t see the Opera Theatre the way it used to be, but it works very well in its new form,” he says. “I felt honoured to conduct the first opera in the re-styled theatre.” He also likes the John Bell take on Carmen, seeing it as a retaining the authentic Spanish flavour but bringing it into a contemporary setting.

He has conducted six previous productions of Carmen and knows the music so well that he stands before the orchestra and singers scoreless. He seldom uses a score when conducting an orchestral concert, either. “I’m not showing off, it’s just that I don’t need it,” he says with a shrug.

It may appear from publicity that Carlo Goldstein is headed towards becoming a specialist opera conductor. But he says no. He’s just as much at home in front of a full concert orchestra or an ensemble. He likes playing piano in small groups – although he never set out to be a solo pianist. He dodges the question about favourite composers or favourite operas, saying that he loves it all but especially thrives on music that is new to him as a conductor, be it ancient, popular or contemporary.

While Carlo Goldstein was a delight to interview, he hit me with an insight right towards the end of our talk that stayed with me for hours afterwards. I asked him why it was that, historically, there was such a disproportionate number of outstanding Jewish musicians. He said that many of them, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries had come from Eastern Europe where the lifestyle took classical music as a given – and was not exclusively Jewish. But there was a deeper truth. Excellence in classical music comes in two parts: technique and interpretation. Technique is acquirable as an athletic pursuit. But the soul of performance lies in interpretation and this is where the Jewish culture exerts an invisible, mighty influence. Goldstein sums it up as ‘re-understanding the text’. While Judaism is all about Rabbis sitting down and arguing how religious texts are to be interpreted, Jewish musicians do the same with their texts: musical scores. The result is performances that go straight of the heart of the listener – who may be as unaware of this source of magic as is the performer.


Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of  The Theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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