THE MUSIC MAESTRO: CARLO PONTI JR. IS THE DIRECTOR AND CONDUCTOR OF THE SAN BERNARDINO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA.
Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Carlo Ponti Jr. could have easily followed in the footsteps of his famous parents. His mother is legendary screen actress Sophia Loren. His father, the late filmmaker Carlo Ponti, Sr. is best known for his critically acclaimed films, "Blow-up," "The Cassandra Crossing," "Federico Fellini's "La Strada" and David Leans' "Doctor Zhivago."
However, instead of filmmaking, Ponti Jr. was drawn to music at an early age, particularly, classical music. Not only did he enjoy listening to Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven, but by the age of nine he had become an accomplished pianist and had mastered their works. Ponti Jr. dreamed of becoming a musical conductor. With the support of his parents, he pursued his passion and achieved his lifelong goal.
Today, Ponti Jr. is the music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony orchestra in California. And although he has held the baton before numerous orchestras from the Slovak Philharmonic, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg in France, the Orchestra Del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy to the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia and Orquesta de Valencia in Spain, he says he's truly found a home with the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
"I really love the San Bernardino community," says Ponti Jr. during a recent phone interview with N2Entertainment.net. "I'm proud of the extraordinary musicians that I work with who also have such passion for the music and the community at large."
The San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra plays in the city's historic California Theatre. "It's such a beautiful place," adds Ponti Jr. It's been a around since 1927 and has been retrofitted for symphony work. It has wonderful acoustics. We're the only symphony in the Inland Empire that plays in a theatre."
Not only has Ponti Jr's celebrity stature help put San Bernardino in the spotlight and on the classical music map, but the 40-year-old conducter has also used his platform to reach out to younger audiences and expose them to classical music. The orchestra's outreach program, "Music in the Schools" is one of many it offers that takes classical musical instruments and instruction to several elementary schools in the San Bernardino Unified School District.
"This is a labor of love," explains Ponti who has been conducting the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra since 2001 and was recently extended to serve through 2015. "It makes me and the orchestra feel as if we are really connecting with this new generation of classical music lovers," adds Ponti Jr. "We make a point to try involve them in what we do and hopefully make a difference in their lives."
For Ponti Jr.—who lives in Encino, California, connecting with the students means making the trek into town usually on Mondays prior to the Saturday orchestra performances. It's a routine he enjoys and one that involves spending time at various schools, working with the student bands and ensembles and even giving pre-concert lectures.
"In Europe music is a tremendous part of the school system," says Ponti Jr. "Here in the United States, it's not so much. Fine Arts continues to be one of the most expendable areas that is often cut from school budgets and that's so unfortunate."
But Ponti Jr. says he is encouraged by what he sees as a "resurgence" in classical music by many young people who are eager to learn about the art form and are demanding that it be part of their school curriculum. He also commends the Grammy Awards for their Foundation's Grammy Signature School program. It recognizes the top public high schools in the country for committing to their music education programs.
"The elementary school years are perhaps the best age to spark an interest," says Ponti Jr. "When I see kids attend a symphony orchestra performance for the first time they are so grateful that they came. They are so energized by what they've heard and experienced. It's an amazing thing to get an audience energized. It's perhaps the most rewarding aspect of what I do. I was so very fortunate to grow up in an environment surrounded by classical music. My parents were very musical. My mother loved jazz and classical music. The symphonic masterworks were always playing in our house. I was interested in the sound. I had this music in my ear and it just stayed with me over the years."
Not once, he says, did his mother and father try and push him in any other direction. "They saw that my passion was music," says Ponti Jr. who began his formal musical studies as a pianist in Paris and later earned a master's degree in conducting. "I was lucky to find something that I really enjoyed," he adds. "So I never felt the need to go into cinema and my parents were very supportive of that decision."
But Ponti Jr. kind of had his 15 minutes of big screen fame, although he barely remembers it. "I was six months old when I made my acting debut," he says laughing. "I was in my mother's movie, "Sunflowers." (1970). I was featured as her son. And I was supposed to cry during a scene, but I only cried when the scene was over. I must have been shocked by the whole experience and maybe that was an early sign that acting was best left to someone else."
That "someone else" just happened to be Ponti Jr's younger brother, Edoardo Ponti, an aspiring actor, writer and director whose films include 2003's "Between Strangers" and Robert Altman's 1998 short, "Liv."
Edoardo is doing what he loves and so am I," says Ponti." "The circle is complete." Ponti Jr. says that both his brother and especially his mother have come many times to see him at work conducting the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
"My mother gets so nervous," he says. "I have to tell her not to worry and that I'll be just fine. My father, before he would come out and see me, he used to ask me how big the orchestra was. He was so impressed with the number of people in it. When he'd come see the performance he'd be like totally wowed by it all."
When Ponti Jr. isn't conducting the symphony orchestra he spends several hours studying music. He recently released his debut album, "Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bare Mountain" (Featuring the Russian National Orchestra. (See "In the Groove" Review). However, the majority of his time is reserved for his wife, Hungarian violinist Andrea Ponti and their two-year-old son, Vittorio. Ponti Jr. admits his mother spoils the kid. "It's her first grandchild so it's all part of the deal," he says with a laugh.
And is dad grooming little Vittorio to follow in his classical footsteps?
"Well, he's already attended one of our family concerts," says Ponti Jr. "I think I saw him applauding so that's a good sign. But I won't push him either way. He'll grow up and make his own choices just like I did. And he'll also get the tremendous family support just like I did too."
Editor's Note: Carlo Poni Jr. is the music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra which performs at the California Theatre. For tickets and more information log on to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (909) 381-5388. The Box Office Hours are Monday through Friday 8:30 am to 5 pm.