Let’s go to concerts!

Interview by Alain Steffen
Bitte fragen Sie (Rombach Verlag)

Christoph König, conductor

„Let’s go to concerts!“

Your artistic career leading you from répétiteur via Kapellmeister to opera and concert conductor reminds me of the course formerly adopted by the great conductors, but nowadays followed by only a very few.

In German-language countries, it is still the usual path followed by conductors today, only that many of them are possibly not so well-known to larger audiences or don’t attract international attention as often. I grew up in Dresden, and for me it was nothing exceptional to move on from répétiteur via capellmeister to concert conductor, but actually quite natural and normal. Above all, it was healthy for my artistic development, for the cautious growth of my experience etc. Nowadays, the overriding hype about stars, as it’s promoted by the media, leads to the need for gods to be created. And quickly so, according to the rules of marketing. The reason for this dilemma could possibly be that the real achievement of a conductor is very difficult to evaluate, and only a few people might be able to do so. In a concert, you hear the result of many small details. The orchestra’s fitness, the relationship between orchestra and conductor, the acoustics, the atmosphere, climate conditions and weather, advance praise and reviews, the nimbus, also the energy and physique of the conductor, all of that plays a role. Even for me, it isn’t always easy to clearly define the job of conducting. An orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic plays well most of the time, maybe even in an inspired manner, even if a less talented conductor is standing on the podium. For me, the conductor is, first of all, an artist who consciously tries to get to the bottom of musical and philosophical issues and tries to understand the message of the music and the composer. If he can convey these things to his orchestra, he needs not to be technically all that accomplished. Of course it’s helpful, because it shortens rehearsal time. Every musician will tell you that conducting is actually a very simple process. It is transmission. If, with your gestures, you can convey to the musicians skilfully and accurately what it is you want from them, it will lead to relatively fast results. And the magic which ultimately everything is about, only develops in the communication between conductor and orchestra, between musicians when they play, and between conductor and audience.

Can one conduct operas and concerts equally well today, in the age of specialization?

I think that is very difficult to generalize: one would have to determine that for each individual conductor, since they all have their particular way of doing things. I don’t see a general trend here. However, the question is certainly allowed whether anyone still wants to do both equally well. Indeed, many opera conductors are not that much interested in the concert repertoire and vice versa. That is where the specialization you mentioned originates – because of a conductor’s preferences, but also because of losing the tradition of Kapellmeister and General Music Director, as mentioned at the beginning. And it originates – we should never forget that – from the circumstances in which a career develops. A good example is Marris Jansons, who never felt the call of opera strongly and concentrated on what he had on his agenda and felt comfortable with. I myself conducted a lot of operas but always felt, right from the start,  attracted to concerts as well, and today I really feel at home on the concert podium. The direct musical communication in a concert is extremely important for me. Unfortunately, in operas, particularly in the repertoire business, it is sometimes rather secondary

In what way?

Opera is a work of art consisting of very many small parts.  It is not just the orchestra but also the choir, the singers, the staging, the director, the building, the mood in the orchestra and among the soloists, the libretto, sometimes even the political environment. The musical effort of the conductor is only a small part in a giant wheelwork that has to work as a whole. My feelings are very strongly those of a musician, and I need the level of direct musical dialogue. And I can’t find that as easily in the opera as in the concert hall. I’m not really that interested in limiting my work mainly to the goal of bringing the ship safely into the harbour. Somehow, the musical processes become coarser. Moreover, one depends on many little things, accidental things on the stage, the interaction of choir and orchestra, the shape the singers are in. Of course, there’s a bit more variety in the stagione system, but even there, as a conductor, you depend on a great number of components you can’t influence at all.

You studied with Sergiu Celibidache and Sir Colin Davis among others  – two very different types of conductor. What did you learn from them?

Celibidache was a fascinating personality with the aura of the great old man, but strictly speaking, I didn’t learn a lot, because I suspect he wasn’t particularly interested in the communication process with young conductors and musicians. It was rather disappointing to see how he presented and enjoyed himself but wasn’t really willing to muster any curiosity for us lambkins. Sometimes, there were almost surrealistic scenes: Celibidache as Buddha at the centre of elemental forces, in the middle of a circle of epigones. But he didn’t spin the threads of a Buddha, I’m sorry to say.

With Colin Davis it was different. I was impressed by his flexibility and adroitness.  It was a light kind of playing music that he conveyed to the orchestra. Under him, the musicians were totally relaxed. Even when it sometimes got hectic, Davis always conveyed poise. I remember a performance of “Figaro”, where the interaction in the orchestra was suddenly very jeopardized. Davis reacted with lightning speed and quickly straightened things out with the energetic gestures of the Kapellmeister. Then he loosened the reins again and let the performance continue in a “relaxed” way. I’m sure that with an orchestra like the Staatskapelle Dresden it’s easier than with many others to focus more on the musical and less on the organizational and technical side of conducting. But precisely that is what makes a good conductor. There are many who make their career, although what they do on the podium is mainly gymnastics. Of course, the indiscriminate concertgoer will perceive a conductor’s show and choreography as his main skill. I don’t mean his physical presence, his charisma so much, which a conductor should have something of. What I mean above all is his wild fidgeting, which is not motivated by music at all. Ultimately, if there’s less fidgeting, the orchestra will usually play much more beautifully, only that the public and the audience don’t register that as much. The likely reason for that is that people perceive things much faster with their eyes than with their ears. But neither Colin Davis nor Celibidache, Carlos Kleiber or  Bernard Haitink  indulged in this kind of “show”.

What, for you, is the difference between a Kapellmeister and a conductor (Dirigent)?

There isn’t any. I suppose it has something to do with German language usage. People like reducing the profession of Kapellmeister to sheer craftsmanship and a pragmatic approach, and one does not relate his work so much to the artistic element.  Di-ri-gent (= conductor), the word melts in your mouth, it sounds elegant with a shot of brutality and implacability, it contains the aura of the exceptional, shrouded in mystery. Ultimately, the profession of conductor is the last one that has this mysterious charisma. It also has something to do with a flaunted exercise of power, which even in our democratic and egalitarian times has a very strong effect, almost like an aphrodisiac. If you’re the manager of a company or president of a country or Federal Chancellor, then actually everybody is capable of judging   your work, but   where conductors are concerned, many things are still in the dark area of the mystical and fantastic. There’s nothing I want to change about this situation; after all, it’s my job (laughs). But I think this profession is a great deal more serious and technical in the good sense of the word than the term “conductor” suggests, fraught with a halo as it is. Fortunately, there are colleagues like Christian Thielemann, who like calling themselves Kapellmeister, thus indicating the importance of the craftsmanship tradition, and who want to put away this charlatanry. Although one can’t deny him, him of all people, an artistic streak. Osmo Vänskä is another conductor who can do entirely without the frippery and who conveys his opinions about interpretation and music very straightforwardly and honestly. Most of the best conductors were modest people and served music with humility, they were real achievers   and not the kind who said: “Look how great I am”. With a few exceptions maybe.   I think the distinction between the divine conductor, who in the concert domain does gigantic and ingenious things, and the poor little Kapellmeister, who slaves away night for night in the orchestra pit, is a fairy tale, and the difference is only maintained linguistically.

What constitutes the magic of conducting? What happens to the conductor, the orchestra, the audience?

Well, if I could solve this conundrum entirely, I would maybe make our profession superfluous in parts: I myself don’t know. I suppose that a part of the public exercise of power mentioned before plays a role. It can attract parts of the audience. But none of this has anything to do with music. It also blurs the borderline: do I go to a concert, because I want to see the handsome, energetic, young conductor or because I want to hear and feel the orchestra and the music? In any case, the functions get mixed up; is it the purpose of the symphony concert to hear beautiful or stimulating music in the same kind of setting, or is there a social element of being seen and meeting others,  a bit of show, a bit of circus, a bit of change….?

When I’m on the stage myself, I naturally don’t speculate on these things; there’s no time for it, and the artistic tension doesn’t allow it. When I’m conducting, I feel the greatest magic if I manage to transmit my ideas to the orchestra and then to the audience without any misunderstandings. One example: in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, there is a fermata in the slow movement; I experienced how the whole orchestra stopped when I did, I enjoyed, as much as I could, the pause and the silence and the tension, and with my back to the audience I felt how everyone caught their breath. That’s heaven, those are the precious moments

How important or detrimental is the “distance” between musicians and the audience? Should soloists and conductors maintain the aura of mystery or should they present themselves in a more “human” way?

I find that a very ambivalent topic, and there are only a few people who can get to the very bottom of it. Maybe one should borrow from Norbert Elias and other sociologists who studied these processes more thoroughly. It already starts with the “setting”: there’s the stage up front and the audience at the back, the stage way up and the audience way down. A certain distance, a certain social distinction is demonstrated for the length of the concert. On the one hand, I have the strong desire to approach the audience and to help them overcome their awe of the “divine” artists. On the other hand, the relationship between artist and audience lives off the tension that only comes about through distance. Only that which is unattainable for us at the moment is also unconditionally interesting. As soon as we have appropriated it, either by purchasing it or getting closer in friendship or eating it up etc., it loses its attraction.   Myself, I think that nowadays one should try out new kinds of concert organization. One could then reconsider the classical   setting of the stage and maybe put the orchestra in the middle of the audience, or something like that, and then it would also be easier to introduce the “artist you can touch” – as things are, something inaccessible will always remain, but maybe also a measure of longing.

How does it feel when, as a young conductor, you have to replace a well-known colleague at short notice, as happened  in your case when you filled in for Franz Welser-Möst and did the “Entführung” in Zurich?

Very, very exciting –  that is the worst and the most beautiful moment you can dream of, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s always a tricky thing when   a young, still inexperienced conductor is supposed to conduct a concert without preparation or fill in for a colleague who fell ill. But one shouldn’t overestimate it either. When, in a large house, a well-known conductor gets sick, then someone will be hired who is trusted by the house and is experienced. No prestigious opera house, no orchestra director would ever let a beginner he never heard of or who can show no references conduct a concert or a performance. In smaller houses, it might occasionally happen that the person filling in is not in control, but that often has other reasons. In any case, I was lucky, I had already conducted the opera orchestra in Zurich, and the directors knew me. Moreover, I knew the piece very well. In that sense, I didn’t fill in at the house but just took over a performance. That helped me a lot to deal with the pressure. That’s why I don’t believe, as the media like writing about it, that someone, by filling in, suddenly starts an international career. A good musician friend of mine, who is now 90 years old and gained experience all over the world, always tells me; “Grades ad parnassum.” A career, or rather an artistic development, does not begin from one day to another; these career jumps don’t really exist. Rather, a real “career” builds up gradually and consistently.

You are currently the chief conductor of the Orquestra Nacional do Porto. Before that, you had the same position with the orchestra in Malmö. Do the mentalities of these orchestras differ, coming from two very different cultural spheres, after all?

There is no difference at all at that point where the conductor’s work with the orchestra essentially begins. Beyond that, you have to face the fact that these typical regional orchestras no longer exist today. The orchestra in Porto, for instance, has musicians from 22 different countries. In Malmö, the situation was slightly more homogeneous, but there, as well, the orchestra was internationally set up. There are differences in some aspects that affect performance as, for instance, discipline during rehearsals, problems influencing the orchestra from outside, concentration, what works are played and so on. But if you know the orchestra, you also know the tension within the ensemble.    The orchestra in Porto is always in an excellent mood on Wednesdays, but the Tuesdays before they’re usually in a rut. For instance, the musicians in Porto seem to need a firm hand occasionally, otherwise the discipline might suffer. For instance, a guest conductor who doesn’t know the orchestra in Porto might encounter difficulties during the first rehearsal. It was different in Sweden; discipline was always excellent in the orchestra, but some concerts were maybe not so lively.

Doesn’t the increasingly international makeup of orchestras have a negative effect on the original orchestra sound, on the personality, the character of the orchestra?

Could I ask the question in another way: What causes, I mean: what is it concretely that leads to a specific sound?
First of all, you have to consider the mentality of the orchestra, which, even today, can be very different according to country, culture and history. Orchestras like the Wiener Philharmoniker, the Concertgebouw or the Staatskapelle Dresden have a similarly strong, quite different mentality shaped by history and the local environment. It can have its downside beyond the stage or the orchestra. The unwritten laws of playing music, but also of behaviour, of communication outside the realm of music, have a direct effect on the sound.

Secondly: it’s precisely the prestigious orchestras, the ones we’re talking about here, that used to have conductors who remained in their position as chief conductor for a very long time and, in their work with the orchestra, contributed directly to the development of a sound.   Kurt Sanderling and Eugene Ormandy are good examples, so are George Szell or Ernest Ansermet. In the old days, that was normal, and orchestras accepted to be directed in the same way for decades. Today, that’s almost unthinkable. The orchestra and, to some extent, the audience gets bored quickly, and before you know it, a new chief conductor is hired   who’s supposed to do it all differently. Rapid change. It’s the same for music as for other areas of society. Everything is subject to a constant process of renewal, but must it take place so fast? Can good things no longer take root? The pace of our time and the just about inexhaustible resources lead to the fact that we cannot stay put anywhere any longer and slowly lose the ability to delve into work, to deepen impressions, experiences or relationships. And the conductors are not blameless with regard to this plight. This attitude of looking around for a new partner quickly and avoiding any conflict can be found among orchestras as well as conductors. I think that, fifty to eighty years ago, that was somewhat different; there was a tendency to commit to longer relationships, and if there were problems, one didn’t immediately look for a new conductor or a new orchestra. And it was the age of airplanes, especially the jet-propelled ones, which contributed decisively   to the fact that artists were available everywhere in sufficient numbers and practically all the time.

Thirdly:  it was the unlimited availability on CDs of all great works with all great orchestras conducted by all well-known conductors that made those comparisons possible that contributed to the blurring of distinctions. Haydn could handle these comparisons, as he said himself at some point: in the seclusion of Esterhazy he had to become “original”. There was little that irritated him. If nowadays someone has an unusual musical idea   and this idea didn’t exist elsewhere before (which is not very likely), he/she has to be extraordinarily steadfast not to have it driven out by teachers, professors, universities, colleagues or critics.

But audiences play a role too, don’t they?

Certainly. The audience, of course, has to deal with the same kind of sensory overload and the same feeling of restlessness. If an audience just hears the same orchestra with the same conductor all the time, then it gets bored faster nowadays, the more so as it can travel to the next town and hear another conductor with another orchestra there. Moreover, the tour business provides us with the best orchestras and conductors free to the door. And because one isn’t used to them yet, they are obviously “better”.   And with this kind of competition, local orchestras sometimes have the problem to remain interesting for the audience. And one mustn’t forget the CD industry. Nowadays, the technical possibilities of recording are so   great that a live concert can hardly satisfy the listening habits of specialists in the audience any more.

If as a conductor you direct an ad hoc orchestra like the Solistes Européens Luxembourg, i.e. musicians who come together only for certain projects, don’t you have to accept qualitative losses?

I ask myself that question, too, sometimes, but what you get then is the charm of something fresh and not everyday. And ad hoc orchestras, in spite of everything, sometimes have their own personality if they work together regularly, the Solistes Européens in particular. That is an outfit, after all, that has been playing music together for many years, and they know one another well. Admittedly, some musicians drop out and new ones join in, but that is no different in other ensembles. One mustn’t forget, either, that all musicians play in other top orchestras and, for that reason, bring along a high musical standard. And the Solistes Européens have, in the course of years, built up a tradition of exceptional musicianship and implemented the chamber music principle, namely of listening to one another, in a wonderful way.   And I must say: it was precisely this quality of playing music together that made me curious and, consequently, got me interested in the whole thing. I can compare the musical and technical quality of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra without any qualms. The level is the same.   It’s just that we’re not as well-known yet as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. But that will change in the next few years, I’m sure.   Above all, the audience here, spoiled by internationally known ensembles, realizes what a gem of an orchestra Luxemburg has got. And this tradition, that the orchestra boasts today, is owed to Jack-Martin Händler, who, as chief conductor, has directed and shaped the ensemble since it was founded in 1989.

How, as a conductor, do you experience the strongly mediatised crisis of music?

Well, if I may say so briefly and casually: only the mediatised part of musical life is in a crisis – music itself is not. If one speaks of crisis, one should maybe differentiate a bit. I don’t think there is a crisis of classical music, there is only a crisis of the music business, that is: the record industry. And this record industry wants to survive, of course, must inevitably break new ground, i.e. look for new sources of income. And then it happens that top-class musicians allow themselves to be talked into cross over productions, which are at least arguable, and all the lovers and connoisseurs of music criticise them strongly. On the other hand, the market is simply oversaturated. One example: when Simon Rattle’s first concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker was recorded and then marketed (it was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony), the CD sold – we must consider that we’re talking about a top event in the music world and a very gratifying opus – just eight hundred times in North America. Add an estimated 4000 copies in Europe, and you’ve got about 5000 copies altogether. A moderately successful pop musician sells about 20.000, 50.000 – 100.000 are better, which is where making money begins. The big guys in the field sell millions… You have to picture that to yourself with regard to this event. Worldwide interest is simply decreasing, and this trend is understandable. We have the agony of choice nowadays… There are so many good recordings of Mahler’s Fifth that even the live recording of a one-time event will hardly get anyone excited. On the other hand, this abundance – in all areas, by the way – leads to the fact that people lose their orientation.   And so nearly every product must be offered with blatant and extreme methods to get any attention at all.   And the most blatant, but less and less often the best offer wins. If any.

Possibly, we’re seeing the approaching end of the record industry in the classical sense familiar to us. Maybe it’s good, because people will then go to concerts again. Surprisingly, there’s no indication of crisis in the concert business. The supply is enormous, and the concert halls are full.   And, after all, music was originally written for the live experience, was conceived of mainly as entertainment. In my opinion, a CD blocks out entirely the essential part, namely   the human component of communication and dynamics. And, therefore, no CD   can ever replace the experience of a concert. And anyway: there’s always been music, and it never needed recording and being artificially conserved. Insofar, the slow death of the record industry is not as deplorable as the record industry would have us believe: it developed at a time when recording technology was discovered, it had an amazing boom in classical music   with Toscanini and later Karajan, it had another boom with the introduction of the Compact Disc, and now it’s become dispensable because of greed, flooding of the market with a myriad of new, young or extravagant artists, and that to an extent where the normal consumer has lost the overview. Well then: let’s go to concerts!