It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Jader Bignamini cemented his bond with Detroit.
For the musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, appointed in 2020, it was perhaps his emotional performance of Beethoven’s Third with a reduced ensemble in an orchestra hall without an audience, the finale of a grueling pandemic year. Or maybe it was a spring evening, when he was conducting a triumphal Beethoven Ninth with full orchestra, full choir and full house.
Or maybe it happened last month, thanks to a jumbotron and a few wild seconds at Comerica Park.
Sporting a Detroit Tigers cap and jersey, visiting the ballpark for his first-ever major league game, Bignamini was in a suite when the stadium cameras rolled.
The gregarious Italian bandleader was at his feet, pumping his arms and smiling broadly as his face appeared on the giant outfield screen in a massive moment of Detroit welcome.
Thirty months after being named to the prestigious DSO spot, Bignamini finally has the opportunity to get an idea of the city. After a pandemic-hampered start to his tenure marked by quarantines and canceled dates, the Italian music director is belatedly experiencing what he’s wanted all along: “the love of feeling part of the community.”
A celebratory scene unfolded in the Comerica Park Suite that night in mid-June, as DSO musicians, staff and donors packed in for an all-American baseball night with the European newcomer. In his one-on-one interactions with the musicians, it was clear that the artistic leader of the DSO commands respect while remaining light-hearted and approachable.
“I like having a really good, close relationship with all of them,” he said.
A wide-eyed whirlwind had accompanied Bignamini’s introduction to Detroit in early 2020. Amid the frantic rush of media rounds, the 43-year-old was the first to admit his English was far from perfect .
While he’s certainly improved on that front – he’s comfortable and increasingly fluid these days – Bignamini also appears to have grown in his leadership role. There is a confident and decisive presence to go with the likable personality.
As the Tigers took on the White Sox below, musicians praised the energy, fun and camaraderie Bignamini brought to Orchestra Hall. Their enthusiasm reaffirmed a truth that has settled around the institution: Everyone loves Jader.
The admiration is mutual.
“There’s a very special atmosphere here in Detroit,” Bignamini said. “Your love for life is strong. On stage with the orchestra, it’s the same – just smile, smile, smile.
Before the Tigers game on that scorching June evening, Bignamini passed through the team dugout. He quickly hit it off with wide receiver Eric Haase, the Westland native who entered the team in 2020. Above, the stadium AP played Stevie’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Wonder, a small dose of Motown fortuitously punctuating a Motor City moment.
As they chatted, Haase revealed that he married into a family of Italian descent – indeed, his wife’s aunt is a classical violinist working in Europe. The catcher vowed to head to Orchestra Hall soon to watch Bignamini at work.
Maestro DSO has taken up the invitation: how about dining at his new favorite Detroit restaurant, contemporary Italian restaurant SheWolf? Bignamini has also become a fan of Slows BBQ and the Gray Ghost steakhouse.
Haase was all about it.
“If you say it’s okay, I trust you,” the receiver replied. “I always trust Italians for food.”
Bignamini’s jersey for the evening, donated by a DSO executive, bore the number 18 – indicating his status as the 18th maestro in the history of the orchestra. It’s a legacy that dates back to 1887, seven years before the Tigers were founded.
“I’m the new player,” Bignamini cracked when he arrived at the ballpark in his Tigers badges. “A very bad new player.”
When he was named in January 2020 as Leonard Slatkin’s successor, he was ready to go. The Italian conductor, crowned with a six-season contract, teems with ideas, overflows with energy and is ready to get to know the city that has bet on him.
Although he had never held a music director position before, he was a rising star – a well-traveled clarinetist with a background in opera who made his mark as a guest conductor across Europe and North America. With grand artistic visions and personal charm, Bignamini had already won hearts backstage. For the leaders of DSO, their adventurous choice quickly paid off.
But within weeks, the global pandemic kicked in.
During those first few months, Bignamini cut a fine figure, working with his orchestra remotely and appearing on screen for DSO’s virtual events. But it was a difficult time. For nearly two years, every trip to Detroit for a concert or other DSO business meant a mandatory two-week quarantine.
“It was so hard,” he said. “Just so hard.”
Things have mostly settled down now and audiences are back. Last month, Bignamini completed his first full season as the DSO’s maestro. Although he is still based in Italy for much of the year, at home with his wife and two teenage sons, he is finally spending a lot of time here.
“I love her to death,” he said. “The people of Detroit – you are so strong with a positive attitude, always ready to work hard but always smiling. It’s kind of like my orchestra. They want to work so hard and reach the highest level possible, but always with an attitude positive. I like that in people.
Bignamini stressed that his leadership is open: he seeks his players’ ideas, listens to their opinions, wants to capture their responses to a piece of music. Problem solving is a group effort.
This rapport with the musicians was evident overnight at the ballpark.
“They have to understand that we are all on the same team. Of course, I’m the chef, but I don’t want to be an old-fashioned maestro – a Toscanini or something like that,” he said. “Because I think it’s better to motivate them by involving everyone in lots of different activities, to live together, to share ideas.”
The Tigers rolled out the red carpet for Bignamini. He had a first-class tour of the ballpark, including a pre-game batting practice where he watched baseballs booming with a “Wow!” emphatic.
Would he be interested in throwing a ceremonial first pitch? Bignamini, attending the first full baseball game of his life, frowned.
“Next time I’ll practice first,” he joked.
The maestro made his way through Comerica Park’s noisy and bustling lobby, checked out statues of Al Kaline and other large tigers, and posed for photos with mascot Paws and the giant tiger at the before.
Someone drew his attention to the outfield sign titled “Miggy Milestones” – which that day totaled 505 home runs and 3,041 hits.
“You are like our Miguel Cabrera,” a DSO executive told him.
Bignamini asked an official how many fans the stadium could hold. Over 41,000, came the response. He smiles. The entire population of Crema, his hometown in northern Italy, could settle inside Comerica Park with seats to spare.
Bignamini then spent his childhood in nearby Cremona, a city twice the size but renowned for its musical history, including a rich operatic tradition and the origins of Stradivarius violins.
During the Tigers game, the bandleader downplayed his own sporting roots. But a friend has revealed Bignamini was actually a talented young footballer with career opportunities before embracing a life in music.
The maestro is excited about the upcoming DSO season, which kicks off on September 30. He will lead half of the season’s classic 20 weeks, particularly relishing the challenge of Mahler’s Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) in November.
“We have an amazing orchestra, such great musicians, and they deserve to play great repertoire,” he said.
It’s part of an ongoing programming vision with diversity in mind, featuring works by women and composers of color. Eighteen of these plays are on the program for 2022-23, alongside traditional classical stock, pop concerts and neighborhood events.
Bignamini is also preparing for a busy weekend at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Camp, where he will lead the DSO on July 22 before leading the orchestra’s musicians alongside a youth ensemble.
Bignamini’s taste for Detroit-style Americana arrived on Flag Day. At Comerica Park, he stood near home plate to watch several dozen immigrants take the oath as U.S. citizens in an on-field naturalization ceremony.
“Keep the good parts of your heritage and share them with your neighbors,” said the presiding federal judge.
Later that night, Bignamini described the scene as touching. For an Italian, he said, it was a glimpse of a particular kind of American pride.
He said he was thrilled to be immersed in it in Detroit.
“The community needs the orchestra,” he said. “And the orchestra needs the community.”
Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]