NEW YORK — WHEN Italy's Riccardo Chailly was chosen - by the orchestra members themselves - to be chief conductor and music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam two years ago, there was a considerable stir among the city's conservative musical elite. A grand tradition of renowned Dutch conductors had been broken for the first time. And if that weren't enough, Chailly had a reputation as a champion of avant-garde music - certainly not to the liking of musical audiences used Bruckner, Brahms, and other late-Romantic composers.
No one was more flabbergasted at the appointment than the youthful, bearded Chailly, who was once a jazz drummer with a rhythm-and-blues band in Italy and an avid motorcyclist.
Chailly never imagined he would end up at the helm of one of the world's most loved and respected orchestras - even though he had started his conducting career at age 14, had become assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala at age 19, and later won an excellent reputation as conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony since 1983, and of the Bologna Opera since 1986.
When he was invited to guest-conduct with the Concertgebouw in 1985, he didn't know the orchestra's conductor at the time, Bernard Haitink, had given notice that he was leaving.
But now all the hoopla is behind him, and Chailly has settled comfortably and happily into his new job. He has proved that an Italian upstart can also have remarkable sensitivity to the traditions of a first-rate orchestra like the Concertgebouw.
Chailly was in New York a few weeks ago to speak with the press about his first US tour with the orchestra, which got underway last week, plays in Iowa City, Iowa, tonight, and goes on to Chicago and elsewhere.
``I am looking forward to the major coast-to-coast tour,'' he said in an interview at his hotel, ``because it is a very special occasion.
``It is the first time we are together in the States.''
Chailly was eager to speak about his relationship with the musicians of the Concertgebouw - something he says was a determining factor in his being offered the post in the first place.
Can Chailly explain it?
``No, I don't think I can. I think it has something to do with your own personality, with your own way of musicmaking, your style of rehearsals,'' he answered, avoiding the pronoun ``I''.
Rehearsals are an important topic for Chailly, who believes that it is not the performance so much as the work that precedes the performance that sets the tone for the relationship between an orchestra and a conductor.
``The performance is the summit which is reached through time, by explaining, by getting into the interpretation. That's how you get the best result in the concert, especially with the Concertgebouw. It is a full-time, mentally committed orchestra to the daily work they do, and very intellectual - they are very into the questions of interpretation.''
It is this commitment, among other things, that Chailly believes gives the Concertgebouw its uniquely warm, translucent style and individuality. And Chailly aims to maintain and enhance the orchestra's traditional values, while he forges new territory.
So far, it seems that Chailly has provided just the balance that the orchestra needs without losing any of its splendor.