Gatti was born in Milan. He was principal conductor of the Orchestra Dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome from 1992 to 1997. In 1997, he became the music director of the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. He has also served as principal guest conductor of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 2005, alongside Zubin Mehta and Christian Thielemann, Gatti was invited to conduct a concert in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1955 reopening and renovation of the Vienna State Opera. His debut at the Bayreuth Festival was in Stefan Herheim's production of Parsifal in 2008.
In 1994, Gatti made his first guest conducting appearance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). He was immediately offered the position of the RPO's principal conductor, and he assumed the post in 1996. Gatti is regarded as having restored the RPO's status on par to the other main London orchestras. During his tenure, in 2004, the RPO acquired its first permanent residency at Cadogan Hall. In April 2007, Gatti was one of eight conductors of British orchestras to endorse the 10-year classical music outreach manifesto, "Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century", to increase the presence of classical music in the UK, including giving free entry to all British schoolchildren to a classical music concert. In 2009, Gatti stepped down as the RPO's principal conductor and became the orchestra's conductor laureate.
Gatti was Music Director of the Orchestre National de France from 2008 to 2016. He was chief conductor of the Zurich Opera from 2009 to 2012. In October 2014, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (KCO) appointed Gatti as its seventh chief conductor, effective September 2016. His KCO guest-conducting debut had been in April 2004. In May 2016, Gatti was appointed Artistic Advisor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
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