Roberto Salvalaio: Conducting the state morin khuur ensemble was my dream


This particular foreign music conductor has a long history with Mongolian artists and the Mongolian State Academic Theater of Opera and Dance (SATOD). The public has heard his name so many times in the last six years that they even wonder he might have Mongolian ancestry.

He has collaborated with some of the best orchestras in the world, including the Venice Symphony Orchestra, the Transilvania State Philharmonic Orchestra of Cluj Napoca, the State Philharmonic of Bacau, the Caracas National Symphony Orchestra, the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra in Catania, the State Philharmonic of Ploiesti, the State Philharmonic of Arad, the Mediterranean Symphony Orchestra and more. Yet, he still returns to Mongolia. This person is none other than world-recognized Italian conductor Roberto Salvalaio. He has been a musical director of the SATOD since 2010

In the last three months, Salvalaio has been working in Ulaanbaatar at the invitation of the SATOD. He recently began his collaboration with the State Morin Khuur Ensemble and participated in Playing Love IV Concert of State Honored composer N.Jantsannorov. Now, he’s preparing to conduct Novel Melody Chamber Music Concert on April 16.

The following is an interview with Salvalaio, who has rendered countless music pieces, from the best classical pieces to traditional Mongolian music, about his latest work and his experience working in Mongolia.

You conducted the State Morin Khuur Ensemble at Playing Love IV Concert last month. Tell us about the experience?

I first came to Mongolia in 2010. Since then, I have always dreamed of conducting the State Morin Khuur Ensemble at least once. This type of orchestra only exists in Mongolia. I got a chance to conduct the State Morin Khuur Orchestra this time because the ensemble’s conductor invited me. Most of the pieces were pieces conducted by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, as well as French and European composers, so it wasn’t that difficult.

What influences you the most in accepting invitations from Mongolian artists and organizations? What makes you always return to Mongolia?

In the past, I used to come to Mongolia for only short periods of times like seven to 10 days, but this time, I stayed and worked here for three whole months. I’m always happy when collaborating with the SATOD.  It’s an amazing theater with extremely talented artists.

Being able to preserve its tradition, culture and heritage despite being situated between two large states is what makes Mongolia different and unique. Mongolia’s music and taste are completely different from their neighboring countries’.

Each and every person has a musical taste. I take a taxi every day. I’ve met couple of drivers who sing while taking me to my destination. In my opinion, they sing very well.

Is conducting Mongolian compositions different from conducting European compositions?

I used to be a composer before becoming a conductor. At the time, my instructor told me that there were two types of music. First one is good music and the other is not so good music. I’ve never actually categorized music as classical, jazz, traditions and other. How musicians play their instruments and how the maestro conducts to deliver the composer’s composition are what matters most.

I feel and understand music by Italian composers better. On the other hand, I need experience to understand the music of Mongolian musicians. I conducted “Munkh Tengeriin Khuchin Dor” (Under the Powers of the Everlasting Heavens) film music piece by N.Jantsannorov during Playing Love IV Concert. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it felt different. But the images on screen helped a lot because a film music is played based on events and scenes.

Which is harder: composing or conducting?

A famous composer once said in a TV talk show that anyone can lead and conduct an orchestra.

Composing music is difficult, so is playing music. Also, if a musician doesn’t have his instrument, he can’t do anything by himself.So as you can see, everything is linked together.

Are there any musical institutes, groups or ensemble that captured your attention as much as the State Morin Khuur Ensemble?

I have conducted rock orchestra, jazz ensemble, and even ballet accompaniment before. I gladly accept any offer people propose to me. It doesn’t matter what you conduct; how you work together, understand one another and feel are what’s important. You asked me many questions. Now you should ask how musicians of the State Morin Khuur Ensemble and people I’ve collaborated with felt when working with me.


Journalist J.Solongo of Unuudur newspaper asked principle conductor of the State Morin Khuur Ensemble D.Tuvshinsaikhan about his experience working with Roberto Salvalaio and he replied that it felt as if he had exchanged experience and received a “classic master” lesson from Salvalaio. When asked the same question, flutist Kh.Khorolsuren said that she was learning many things from the experienced conductor while she translated for him. Reportedly, other musicians were delighted to have worked with Salvalaio.


Is working in Mongolia hard? How does your day at work go?

This (conducting and preparing for Novel Melody Chamber Music Concert) has been my main job since I came here at the invitation of the SATOD. While doing this, I’m leading some concerts through invitations from the State Morin Khuur Ensemble and other artists.

Today [March 30] is actually my day-off but I’m working at the SATOD because we have a joint rehearsal. We have a concert tonight. [Govi and Steppe Ensemble Concert by composer N.Jantsannorov was held at the Central Cultural Palace that day].

You posted a photo on Facebook of yourself wearing a Mongolian deel during Tsagaan Sar. It looked good on you!

I think that’s a joke.

No, it really suited you.

Thank you. I think deel suits people with Asian eyes better.

Do you have many Mongolian friends?

I haven’t made a really close friend because I’m here to work. I stay all day at work and practically get home half asleep.

How do you find the living condition in Mongolia?

It was quite difficult during freezing cold days in winter. But it was bearable because it was much colder in Yakutat, Alaska.

In general, it all depends on how people accept something. You can feel happiness even under the scorching hot sun in Africa. Some of my friends who have gone to Africa for several days tell me that it was very hard and they were exhausted. Nevertheless, it’s the same no matter where you go if you focus on only positive things.

Being able to preserve its tradition, culture and heritage despite being situated between two large states is what makes Mongolia different and unique. Mongolia’s music and taste are completely different from their neighboring countries’

Are you saying that you’ve never felt it was difficult or exhausting no matter where you were?

Now that I think about it, it wasn’t that easy to stay in China. I had to travel to concert halls for up to three to four hours in a bus because China is so large. I had to stay in different cities every day.

As for food, I couldn’t adjust to Japanese food. It has completely different taste and feel. For example, sushi and teriyaki, but it’s OK. Being in Mongolia is definitely not difficult. Food, environment and everything else is good.

Have you tasted khorkhog, Mongolian barbecue mutton dish cooked with hot stones in a closed container?

That’s an excellent idea. I should try it when I come next time. After Tsagaan Sar, the choir master called me into his room and gave me marmot boodog, cooked with hot stones in the stomach of the marmot.It was quite tasty.

Are you learning the Mongolian language?

Am I speaking in Mongolian? (He laughs). No, not at all. I can only say words that I hear frequently every day. The Mongolian language is very hard. I can’t pronounce some words, but I can understand a little from people’s conversations. I might learn it next time I come.

When will you visit again?

I can’t say when I’ll come back again at the moment.