Friday, December 30, 2011

Tough times ahead

Sad news. The Royal Danish Theatre - which includes two of my employers; the Opera and the Ballet - is facing yet another substantial budget cut over the next 4 years. This time it's in the area of 100 million danish kroner (13,5 million € or 16,5 million $).
An already struggling Royal Theatre now has no other option but to start laying off people, and the word is that a 100 people will be thrown in the volcanoe, divided between 60 members of administration and 'technical staff', 35 'artists' and 5 in the management.
This is a devastating blow to the house, and quite possibly the comparatively biggest staff cut in the history of the house.

Exactly who gets the boot is left to negotiations, and some people in administration now face the tough task of choosing who must go. Rumor is that the Chorus will take a huge reduction from 56 to 40 members and that the opera will loose a pianist (going from 5 to 4) but that the Royal Orchestra (120+ members) will not be touched.
What will happen to the ballet and theatre department I do not know, but for the numbers to match, I could easily imagine the Ballet loosing 8-9 dancers and a pianist, and the acting department loosing 8-9 members as well.
The technical staff has been under increased pressure with reductions and budget cuts in the last couple of years, and having to trim down an additional 60 is almost impossible to imagine.

Obviously, a reduction of productions will follow.
The Opera will be left with 8-9 productions a year, making all local bloated talk in the last decade about the house having 'international class' and being 'comparable to major opera houses all over Europe' seem completely absurd. On a sidenote, I wonder how the Opera's two newly appointed bosses feel. Keith Warner just started his first season as Artistic Director and Jakub Hrusa was just appointed Chief Conductor. I wonder if they had any idea what awaited them when they signed their contracts??

There is a definite sense of panic in the house at the moment, and who can blame them? The ballet dancers have volunteered a paycut while the actors apparently have demanded that the management take a massive cut, but everything is up in the air until at least the 16th of january.

Ironcally, this whole ordeal might benefit those that make a living from temporary employment (like myself), but that offers no consolation. The house face possibly it's hardest staff cut ever, and is truly in disarray. The artistic level will invariably suffer, as will the work environment and the incentive to hang around. 
It's already hard to attract the really top echelon of guest singers, conductors, directors, choreographers etc. to fringe cities like Copenhagen, and when they come they normally get paid insane mounts of money for fleeting visits. This practise will of course have to stop, and Copenhagen will slowly but surely return to being 100% 'provincial'. Having the likes of Domingo, Netrebko or Alagna visiting is surely a thing of the past?

If I try my hardest to find a positive angle in this misery, it is that some of the 'less gifted' members of staff might finally be weeded out. In the danish public sector, it's notoriously difficult to fire anyone with tenure, unless they show up drunk or punch their colleagues in the face, but now management can hesitate no longer

Despite all this, a happy New Year to all of you.

- Jesper

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Giancarlo Andretta and the Highlander Principle

My beloved teacher back at the Royal Danish Academy of Music (he no longer teaches there unfortunately) Giancarlo Andretta, is a man of many words and stern principles which he would gladly share with us students, repeatedly and with great conviction.

I will respectfully share my thoughts on a couple of them, noting that I have truly taken much of Andretta's teaching to heart, and have found many of his expressions to be not only truisms but also truths.

1) "There is only one one
" (a.k.a. The 'Highlander Principle')
Premise: If your "1" beat (the first beat, the downbeat) is always in the same place, the people who you are conducting will always know where to find it. 

    • No other beat must be in the same spot that your "1" is.
    • Your "1" must always go downwards.

This is fantastic advice in my opinion, and one that all conducting teachers should pass on to their students.
Anyone playing to a conductor whose "2" or "3" is in the same place as the "1" will tell you it can be very disruptive and confusing.  It takes me roughly 2 seconds to spot a conductor whose downbeat is always somewhere 'upstairs' or always in a different spot, and it always makes me cringe.  (Right now I can almost hear Andretta shouting "THERE IS NO UP!! YOU MUST GO DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!!". )

My own personal observations lead me to believe that a missed entrance or a confused chorus is very often a result of the conductor not properly adhering to the 'Highlander Principle'.

2) "There can be no escape"

Premise: With your "1" locked firmly in place, you are able to completely steer your forces, allowing them no escape.

This is actually a sub-article of the 'Highlander Principle', that is to say; it is the presumed result of a correctly applied 'Highlander Principle'.
You cannot allow the orchestra to run away, or yourself to run away with them. If the orchestra don't follow you, you simply stay put until they do.
Now, I think Andretta is on to something, but not completely right. My first teacher at the academy, Frans Rasmussen, took a slightly different approach. His take on control was, that as a conductor you should 'hold the reigns, as if riding a horse'. You don't keep the reigns too tight, or your 'horse' will stall; become too locked to perform freely and will quickly become nervous and at worst obstructive. I like this analogy.
The more rigid 'no escape' policy is powerful under the right circumstances, but I don't believe it to be absolutely true of conducting in general. 

Nevertheless, this 'Lex Andrettae' touches on a very interesting phenomemon in conducting: There is a delicate fuse between the conductor and the orchestra that allow a meaningful interaction to take place, wherein the conductor is - pardon the pun - in charge.
Certain actions on the part of the conductor breaks the fuse, and his actual power vanishes. This is a one-way street byt the way; only the Conductor can break it.

A whole variety of actions can result in a broken fuse: correcting something that wasn't actually a mistake, giving wrong cues repeatedly, giving mixed messages about specific playing styles or articulations etc. etc.
Possibly the most devastating one is allowing the orchestra to run away from the tempo you actually want to set. If you don't immedeately interrupt the rehearsal and try to correct this, you will have effectively broken the fuse and lost not only your power, but most likely also the respect of the orchestra. Some orchestras might replace the fuse for you for your next rehearsal together, but some have a strictly one-fuse-policy.

At the moment, we are unfortunately seeing something like this unfold at the Royal Danish Opera's current production of 'Cosi Fan Tutte', where somewhere along the line the fuse was blown, and the orchestra now almost completely ignores their conductor and is trying to play the opera on it their own. The result is of course less than satisfying.
(I cannot say what caused the disruption, as I have not been present at rehearsals.)

3) "It is not our mistake, but it becomes our problem!"
Although ideally not a principle of conducting per se, this is another one of my favorite 'Andrettaisms'.

Premise: You must accept, that as a conductor you will have to take the blame for a lot of other people's mistakes, and accept that the ideal quality of your work will always be influenced by mistakes you yourself did not necessarily make.

Of course, this happens a lot, and thankfully it doesn't mean that conductors don't get rightly blamed for mistakes they make, it just means that a lot will appear to be the conductor's fault, when it fact it could be the musician's, the singers', the stage manager's, the director's or someone elses fault. When you take to the podium, you have to be able to carry the weight of that responsability, and never stoop to playing blame games or spending your precious rehearsal time barking at someone for making mistakes. When you are on the podium, their mistake is now your problem, so do what you can to solve it or change your focus.

- Jesper

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is this the world's first binational orchestra in the making?

On each side of the border between Denmark and Germany lie the two cities with a symphony orchestra of their own. On the danish side, we have Sønderborg (pop. 30.000) and on the german side it's Flensburg (pop. 90.000).
Both cities are rich in history, and represent seperate parts of the old kingdom of Schleswig, divided and contested throughout several centuries, but since 1920 finally split into the danish Nordslesvig and the German Schleswig-Holstein. Both areas have a mix of danish and german 'expatriots', and both languages are spoken throughout the borderland.

Orchestras have it tough these days, and someone came up with the brilliant idea of combining the two orchestras; the danish Sønderjyllands Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the german Schleswig-Holsteinisches Sinfonieorchester (S-HS). The fusion would result in a 'proper' size orchestra of about 110 musicians, instantly making it a decent match for its two nearest big cities, Hamburg and Copenhagen.

The orchestras that the SSO and S-HS normally compete with, such as the Philharmonisches Orchester Kiel or the Odense Symphony Orchestra have around 75 musicians, and so the proposed binational orchestra (the Schleswig Philharmonic?) would be a major player in the region, capable of attracting an altogether different league of soloists and conductors than their competitors.

The two orchestras bring different things to the negotiations; the SSO has a brand new concerthall - the "Alsion" - located on the waterfront in Sønderborg, and the orchestra serve an area of about 250.000 people. The S-HS has an old operahouse, temporarily closed over the summer for fear it would collapse, but serve a much larger area and thus has much more potential customers.
The danes bring a dutch chief conductor; David Porcelijn, the germans bring an estonian; Mihkel Kütson.
The danes play primarily symphonic repertoire, the german are an opera orchestra.

I find the idea fascinating. This fusion could be the perfect solution to many of small-orchestra-headaches these guys normally struggle with, but it will of course face many obstacles on the way, mostly related to funding and other practicalities.
I imagine most musicians would welcome the opportunity to 'upgrade' their orchestra, and thereby attract a substantially larger audience and a better caliber conductors and soloists.

Good luck, held og lykke, viel glück!

- Jesper

P.S. I'm not affiliated with any of the orchestras involved, but I am set to conduct the Sønderjyllands Symphony Orchestra for the first time next year. Hopefully the project will have moved forward by then.

P.P.S. A related article in danish on the Danish Radio website

No danish Soldiers of Orange. Why?

Royal Danish Opera and their recently appointed Chief Conductor Jakub Hrusa has joined in the Soldier of Orange protests with this video:

Just a few days after my post, the Odense Symphony Orchestra released the first danish "Soldier of Orange" video with their chief conductor Alexander Vedernikov, and here it is:

!Original post! 
As most people in the classical music industry might have noticed, the website are hosting the many recordings of the dutch tune 'Soldier of Orange' in support of the Dutch orchestras and cultural life in general. This widespread 'happening' is an impressive show of solidarity and sympathy that our industry can be truly proud of.

The list of participating orchestras and conductors is long and impressive, and so far include 63 orchestras from Holland, England, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, Slovenia, Israel, Colombia and Hong Kong... (Did I forget someone? I hope not...)

Among the conductors taking a stand in this matter are such notaries as Zubin Metha, Valery Gergiev, Cristoph Eschenbach, Leonard Slatkin, Esa-pekka Salonen, Mariss Jansons, Jorma Panula etc. etc.

Now my question is this: why are there no danish orchestras on the list?
This is of course as much a question to my danish colleagues as to anyone else. 

Unforteunately, I don't have 'my own' orchestra, and have - so far - had no response to the my suggestions to some of the orchestras I regularly work with of recording the Soldier of Orange

Recently there has been a change of government in Denmark, and a new Minister of Culture elected. Among his political suggestions prior to the election was the scrapping of one or more professional orchestras.
After his election, he has been met with stern critiscism from all sides, and have since recanted, but surely danish orchestras - having had the loaded gun pointed at themselves - must now have even more sympathy for their dutch colleagues? One of the Dutch orchestras on the line even has a danish Chief Conductor! (Michael Schønwandt).

What's going on?

- Jesper
P.S. Here's the list of participating orchestras/conductors: Please view as many as you can stomach on the website. It all helps.

#1 Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen
#2 London Philharmonic with Vladimir Jurowski
#3 WDR Sinfonieorchester with Alfred Lutz
#4 Rotterdams Philharmonisch with Leonard Slatkin
#5 Orchestra Five to Twelve with Lawrence Renes
#6 Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Alexander Prior
#7 Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Myung-Whun Chung
#8 Metropole Orchestra with Jules Buckley
#9 Sinfonieorchester Aachen with Klaus Arp
#10 Orquestra Sinfonica do Porto with Jorma Panula
#11 La Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, Valladolid with Alejandro Posada
#12 Nordic Youth Orchestra with Stefan Solyom
#13 Edo de Waart with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
#14 Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra with Christoph Eschenbach
#15 The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
#16 Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau with Antony Hermus
#17 National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia
#18 Radio Kamer Filharmonie with Thomas Zehetmair
#19 Sinfonia Toronto with Nurhan Arman
#20 Holland Opera with Niek Idelenburg
#21 The Brabant Philharmonic Orchestra with Stefan Veselka
#22 Düsseldorfer Symphoniker with Mario Venzago
#23 Bamberger Symphoniker with Jonathan Nott
#24 Beethoven Orchester Bonn with Stefan Blunier
#25 Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (OBC) with Antoni Ros Marbà
#26 Amsterdam Sinfonietta with Candida Thompson
#27 Detlev Glanert, Roland Boeer and Royal Northern College of Music Manchester
#28 Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Yannick Nézet-Séguin
#29 European Union Youth Orchestra with Jac van Steen
#30 Gothenburg Symphony with David Björkman
#31 Rheinischen Philharmonie Koblenz with Daniel Raiskin and Enrico Delamboye
#32 London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev
#33 Norrköping Symhony Orchestra with Josef Rhedin
#34 The Ricciotti ensemble with Gijs Kramers
#35 Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov
#36 Basel Sinfonietta with Steven Sloane
#37 RTÉ Concert Orchestra with David Brophy
#38 Göteborg Opera Orchestra with Patrik Ringborg
#39 Belgrade Philharmonic with Darko Butorac
#40 Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands with Jurjen Hempel
#41 Brussels Philharmonic with Michel Tabachnik
#42 Neubrandenburger Philharmonie with Stefan Malzew
#43 Malmö Symphony Orchestra with Marc Soustrot
#44 Royal Phiharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit
#45 WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln with Helmuth Froschauer
#46 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta
#47 Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Harding
#48 Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Sakari Oramo
#49 Gürzenich Orchestra Köln with Markus Stenz
#50 Hamburger Philharmoniker with Simone Young
#51 Holland Symfonia with Otto Tausk
#52 Berner Symphonieorchester with Mario Venzago
#53 Sinfonieorchester Basel with Dennis Russell Davies
#54 Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with Sakari Oramo
#55 Slovenian Philharmonic with Kenneth Montgomery
#56 The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra with Eivind Gullberg Jensen
#57 Philharmonisches Orchester Giessen with Herbert Gietzen
#58 Trondheim Symphony Orchestra with Mika Eichenholz
#59 Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mariss Jansons
#60 Kymi Sinfonietta with Yasuo Shinozaki
#61 Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias
#62 Staatsorchester Kassel - who's the conductor??
#63 Niedersächsisches Staatsorchester Hannover with Karen Kamensek

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Hvor er chefdirigenten?

Jeg har tilladt mig at lave en lille analyse af de største nordiske professionelle orkestre og kor, med henblik på fordelingen af chefdirigentposter. Dem er der ikke mange af i det hele tager, og relativt små lande som vores er afhængige af stærke, udenlandske kræfter. Det afspejler sig tydeligt i fordelingen.

Jeg har begrænset mig til de ti største institutioner og derunder inkluderet to kor og samt det største militærorkester i det pågældende land.

  • Finnish National Opera: Mikko Franck (Finland)
  • Helsinki Philharmonikerne: John Storgårds (Finland)
  • Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra: Sakari Oramo (Finland) - derefter Hannu Lintu (Finland)
  • Tampere Philharmonic: Hannu Lintu (Finland)
  • Tuurku Philharmonic:. Petri Sakari (Finland)
  • Lahti Symphony Orchestra: Okku Kamu (Finland)
  • Kuopio Symphony Orchestra: Sascha Goetzl (Østrig)
  • Finnish Philharmonic Chorus: Hannu Norjanen (Finland)
  • Finnish National Operachoir:  Juha Kuivanen (Finland)
  • Kaartin Soittokunta (den Finske livgarde): Raine Ampuja/Sami Hannula (begge Finland)
10 stillinger, 9 finske chefer

  • Kungliga Filharmoniska Orkestern: Sakari Oramo (Finland)
  • Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester: Daniel Harding (England)
  • Göteborgs Symfoniker: Gustavo Dudamel (Venezuela)
  • Kungliga Hovkapellet ("1.gæstekapelmester"): Pier Giorgo Morandi (Italien)
  • Kungliga Operakören: Folke Alin/Christina Hörnell (begge Sverige)
  • Helsingborgs symfoniorkester: Andrew Manze (England)
  • Malmö symfoniorkester: Marc Soustrot (Frankrig)
  • Göteborgs Operan: Finn Rosengren (Sverige)
  • Norrköpings symfoniorkester ("1.gæstekapelmester"): Stefan Solyom (Sverige)
  • Arméns Musikkår: (Mats Janhagen, Sverige)
10 stillinger, 4 svenske chefer

  • Oslo-Filharmonien: Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Finland)
  • Den Norske Nationalopera: John Helmer Fiore (USA)
  • Bergen filharmoniske orkester: Andrew Litton (USA)
  • Trondheim Symfoniorkester: Krzysztof Urbanski (Polen)
  • Stavanger Symfoniorkester: Steven Sloane (USA) og Fabio Biondi (Italien)
  • Kristiansand Symfoniorkester: Rolf Gupta (Norge)
  • Kringkastningsorkestret: Thomas Søndergaard (Danmark)
  • Operakoret: Raymond Hughes (USA)
  • Det Norske Solistkor: Grethe Petersen (Norge)
  • Forsvarets Stabsmusikkorps: Ole Kristian Ruud (Norge)
10 stillinger, 3 norske chefer

  • Det Kongelige Kapel (Jakob Hrusa, Tjekkiet)
  • Radiosymfoniorkestret: Rafael Frübeck de Burgos (Spanien) & Kristjan Järvi (Estland)
  • Sjællands Symfoniorkester: Lan Shui (Kina)
  • Odense Symfoniorkester: Alexander Vedernikov (Rusland)
  • Århus Symfoniorkester: Giancarlo Andretta (Italien)
  • Aalborg Symfoniorkester: Rumon Gamba (England)
  • Sønderjyllands Symfoniorkester: David Porcelijn (Holland)
  • Radio Underholdningsorkestret: Adam Fischer (Ungarn)
  • Den Jyske Opera: Giordano Bellincampi (Danmark/Italien)
  • Livgardens Musikkorps: Martin Åkerwall (Danmark)
10 stillinger, 2 (1½) danske chefer

Denne simple undersøgelse taler sit tydelige sprog. Finland er milevidt foran de øvrige nordiske lande med hensyn til at udvikle og ansætte egne dirigenter. Danmark lå indtil for nylig på niveau med Sverige og Norge, men efter Schønwandt's afgang fra det Kgl. Teater og Dausgaard's afgang fra Radiosymfoniorkestret ligger vi nu nederst i bunken. Når Giordano Bellincampi fra næste sæson stopper som chef for Den Jyske Opera er Martin Åkerwall i realiteten den eneste danske chefdirigent i Danmark.
Hvad gør Finland anderledes? Det håber jeg de danske orkestre, kor, musikkonservatorier og kulturelle embedsmænd er nysgerrige efter at finde ud af.

- Jesper

P.S. Andre Kunstarter

Det er sværere at sammenligne på tværs af kunstarterne, men her er alligevel en liste over teaterchefer og museumsinspektører i de største danske institutioner.

8 Danske Teatre:
  • Det Kgl. Teater: Emmet Feigenberg (Danmark)
  • Folketeatret: Kasper Wilton (Danmark)
  • Betty Nansen: Peter Langdal (Danmark)
  • Det Ny Teater: Nils-Bo Valbro (Danmark)
  • Nørrebro Teater: Jonathang Spang/Kitte Wagner (begge Danmark)
  • Odense Teater: Michael Mansdotter (Danmark)
  • Århus Teater: Stefan Larsson (Sverige)
  • Aalborg Teater: Morten Kirkskov (Danmark)
8 stillinger, 7 danske
10 Danske kunstmuseer:
  • Nationalmuseet: Per Kristian Madsen (Danmark)
  • Statens Museum for Kunst: Karsten Ohrt (Danmark)
  • Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: Flemming Friborg (Danmark)
  • Thorvaldsens Museum: Stig Miss (Danmark)
  • Louisiana: Poul-Erik Tøjner (Danmark)
  • Brandts, Odense (3 direktører, alle danske)
  • Aros: Jens Erik Sørensen (Danmark)
  • Kunsten, Aalborg: Gitte Ørskou (Danmark)
  • Arken: Christian Gether (Danmark)
  • Horsens Kunstmuseum: Claus Hagedorn-Olsen (Danmark)
10 stillinger, 10 danske

P.P.S Den Kongelige Ballet har dansk balletmester (Nikolai Hübbe)

Monday, October 03, 2011

De 3 kulturpolitiske kernepunkter i det nye regeringsgrundlag.

Den nye danske regeringen vil (ifølge regeringsgrundlaget) sætte kulturpolitisk fokus på tre kerneområder:
  • Internationalisering.
  • Økonomisk Vækst.
  • Demokrati.
Det kan umiddelbart være lidt svært at sætte ind i en konkret sammhæng for en udøvende kunstner, men regeringen har nok også været forsigtige og brugt meget 'åbne' begreber for sidenhen at kunne fylde konkret indhold på.

Mine umiddelbare gæt er, at 'Internationalisering' betyder at Danmark skal brandes mere internationalt. Det kan være i forbindelse med større sportsbegivenheder a la cykel-VM eller Uffe Elbæk's egen Outgames, udveksling mellem danske og internationale institutioner, støtte til promovering af danske kunstnere i udlandet og opbygning af internationale netværk. 
Men, man kan håbe på, at det også involverer en ambition om at løfte dansk kunst (i denne her sammenhæng altså al det der hører under KUM og som ikke er sport) op på et konkurrencedygtigt niveau i forhold til sammenlignelige lande. Det kan man argumentere for at Danmark allerede er i mange discipliner, men der må være noget den nye regering mener vi kan gøre bedre. Det kunne for eksempel være at give kunstneriske uddannelsesinstitutioner den førstehjælp de så desperat har behov for, og derefter sørge for langsigtede og fornuftige levevilkår for de kulturelle vækstlag.

'Økonomisk vækst' er et meget ukulturelt begreb, men mon ikke det handler om, at danske kulturinstitutioner selv skal lære at få midlerne til at vokse, og ikke være afhængige af Fonde eller statslige fordelings-udvalg i ligeså høj grad som det har været tilfældet? Det tolker jeg som et ønske om øget samarbejde mellem kultur- og erhversliv, hvilket Elbæk også er ferm til at nævne som en vigtig del af kulturens kommende udfordringer. Det klinger umiddelbart meget liberalt og lyder ærligt talt som en nypolitisk sutteklud i en tid hvor man nødigt sætter reelle midler af til kultur, men hellere vil lære os selv at finde pengene.

Demokrati findes ikke i kunsten, det er der flere store kunstneriske genier der har insisteret på, så der må være noget om snakken. Men nu er regeringsgrundlaget selvfølgelig heller ikke et kunstnerisk manifest, men derimod et kulturpolitisk manifest, så det handler måske om, at undgå topstyring og genføde armslængdeprincippet, som især DF har været med til at nedbryde. 
Men, handler det også om demokrati som 'medicin' til et skrantende, laveste-fællesnævner-søgende, medieliderligt kulturliv der har været på nippet til at flyde til havs på en understrøm af privatisering og frie markedskræfter? Det kan da håbe på, men samtidig må jeg så studse over det selvmodsigende i et sådant kulturpolitiske grundlag, med henvisning til konklusion angående punktet 'økonomisk vækst'.

Der er ingen tvivl om, at det klassiske musikliv i Danmark (altså, min branche) mandag var grebet af lynch-stemning ved gennemlæsning af Uffe Elbæks 'Kulturlivets Marshallplan'. Jeg tror udfordringen for Uffe Elbæk nu bliver at overbevise de store kulturinstitutioner om, at han er andet end en raffineret selvudviklings-coach, med al den snak om "crossover", "nye samarbejder", "innovation" etc.
Hans tilsyneladende manglende berøringsflade med de traditionelle kulturområder (musik, billedkunst, teater, dans) virker som et kæmpe problem i lyset af den aggressive udmelding om lukninger og nedskæringer. 
Heldigvis er der dog intet der tyder på, at vi har en ny Brian Mikkelsen at brydes med, så lad os bare overbevise ham Elbæk om, at det er dumt at dele dansk musikliv op i to konkurrerende kategorier, og at det er dumt at lukke nogle som helst orkestre eller scener, men tværtimod opfordre ham til stå sammen med alle kulturlivets parter og være den første kulturminister vi føler har det som hjertesag at kæmpe for tilførsel af nye midler til et trængt kulturliv. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

A quick twofer...

Atmittedly, I've been a lazy blogger this week, but I'm working on a couple of big posts...well, and a couple of big operas. In the meantime, here are a couple of links that might intrigue you:

Why is opera such an emotional experience? 
Is it the dramatic structure? The imposing combined efforts of singers/orchestra/staging?'s the screaming.
Read about the mystery of the 'frisson'.

Some years ago, I was with a friend in a big record store in New York.
On a monitor there was a video of an orchestra playing, but there was no sound.
Much to my surprise (and my friends'), from just watching the video I realized they were performing Dvorak's 9th symphony. Big deal?
Not compared to this this guy.

I'll be back before long with some more indepth stuff, and not another word on that tv show "Maestro".

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The best and worst of my time as assistant conductor - and why it ends here.

Step up to the plate 

My history as assistant conductor at the Royal Theater (Royal Danish Opera) began with an internship/hospitant type program between the Royal Danish Academy of Music and the Royal Theatre, initiated by my former teacher Frans Rasmussen (now on the judging panel of the danish version of the tv-show "Maestro"). 
The program was simple and wonderful: A student was attached to a specific opera production, and had no obligations other than just being present as much as possible during the process and absorb. 'My' opera was a world premiere of danish composer Bent Sørensen's "Under Himlen" which Michael Schønwandt conducted. As it turned out, an additional backstage conductor was needed for the performances, and thus I got my first paid gig at the theater.  
Shortly after that, they needed an assistant conductor for Rossini's 'La Cenerentola' (conducted by my subsequent teacher Giancarlo Andretta) and again they asked me. It was intimidating to step onto the podium in the orchestra pit at the theatre and look up at all the experienced and amazing talented singers that I, a very inexperienced conductor at the time, suddenly had to guide through a rehearsal of 'Cenerentola'. Several of them gave me good advice along the way, and during the month I was on that show, I learned some very basic things about conducting.
Not long after 'Cenerentola' I was offered an even greater task: to be assistant conductor throughout the production of the complete Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'  - directed by Kasper Holten and conducted again by Michael Schønwandt. Quite a few of the operas I've been assigned to has had Schønwandt conducting. He has an exemplary way of cooperating with singers, directors, managers, etc. and through him I have learned a lot about both the physical and psychological processes associated with an opera production.
During the hundreds of hours we have spent in confidentiality by the conductors podium, Michael has given me countless tips and pointers, and the kind of apprenticeship has been a tremendous help. Over the years, I have realized that we are musically very different, but that's another story.

In Control

As an assistant conductor you work very hard for a production and is ultimately left standing outside the limelight - side by side with the operaworld's other unsung heroes: the assistant directors, stagemanagers, prompters etc. 
The 'real' conductor might arrive for a week of musical rehearsals at the early stages of the production and then disappear again completely until the orchestral rehearsals start some weeks later. In the meantime, the many rehearsals with piano are then left to the assistant who must try to maintain the shape and tempo of the piece that has been established at the initial musical rehearsals. You might also be given specific instructions as to how the piece should be rehearsed  ("Don't let him sing too loudly there" - "Keep the fermatas short" etc.). For the assistant conductor, this first week is therefore vital, and you sense immediately if you are left with something to work on, or whether most is left to chance. The conductor who begins a 2-month rehearsal period with just a shallow playthrough, does everyone involved a disservice. 

The most conscientious, well prepared and also the most controlling conductor I have assisted, was also my teacher in my last years at the conservatory; Giancarlo Andretta. From him I learned the importance of being prepared down to the smallest detail. His carefully prepared scores, calligraphic rehearsal schedules, unyielding tempos and recurring highly instructive 'lectures' (sometimes bordering on sermons), made ​​him an incredibly easy conductor to be the assistant to, but also served as an important illustration of the fact that in conducting, there are ultimately other qualities than the purely technical that play a major role. Otherwise, becoming a great conductor wouldn't be all that hard, right?

Let the music speak 
My greatest musical experiences have probably been as an assistant to Jiri Kout (for 'Tristan and Isolde'), and Friedemann Layer ('Ariadne auf Naxos'). Both demonstrated many of the qualities I most appreciate in a true 'maestro': calm and clarity, precision (in both interpretation and execution) and humility. 
Both had a physically understated way of conducting, with very contained, sinewy gestures. Both stood humbly before the music, completely disregarding personal interests in favor of the music.  
Of these two 'maestri' I learned that there is a reason in letting the music speak, and never believing yourself to be more interesting than the composer or the score. 
Simply give the music a language, and it will tell you what it is.

Jiri Kout has a reputation for being extremely temperamental. We didn't really see much of that in Copenhagen, but one time, he did snap his baton in half in frustration over an unconcentrated musician. 
His crooked fingers and burning eyes gave us an intense, scorching, syrup'y Tristan which was contrasted rather brutally by the younger German colleague who took over the show the following season and whose hasty, edgy, unphrased Tristan, I almost could not bear to listen to. As I was conducting the stagemusic for the show I was left with no choice and so night after night my preferred taste for Kouts's interpretation was confirmed. 
Why conduct a piece like Tristan if you can not provide a contact to the profound emotions and permeating 'todeslust' that is so central a theme? I still wonder about that...
Throughout rehearsals for 'Tristan', Kout had one recurring mission: legato. Again and again he interrupted a singer with just that one word, and with a smoothly drawn gesture he would then attempt to soften up some of the singers who might normally sing more marcato. It may sound simple enough, but it can be very difficult to alter something as basic as a singer's usual style of voice-production, even more so with experienced or complacent singers. I often picture a fragile Jiri Kout, looming over the piano like Rodin's 'The Thinker', whispering "no, no, legato, legato ..."

Cartoon by Marian Kamensky

Friedemann Layer was apparently not quite as fragile as Kout. He had an almost slick, understated way about him and what initially appeared to be a healthy dose of "Wiener-arrogance", but he would often soften up into a cunning smile or a single raised eyebrow, and I found him to be very likable. When he worked, it was always at a calm pace, with clear lines and a fixed gaze. There was no hysteria, no forced tempos, no yelling and screaming but at the same time there was no compromise. Layer knew what he wanted and he steered his opera masterfully. One thing was certain though, that every time I stepped into the rehearsal room he immedeately found an excuse to leave. He personally had no great desire for rehearsing, and gladly let me run the rehearsal even if he didn't actually have anything 'better' to do.
He made a startling confession during the course of his combined Ariadne auf Naxos / Tannhäuser stay in Copenhagen. One of the musicians was commending him on his approachable manner and respectful way of working with the orchestra, and he simply answered: "I was not always like that." He then explained that when he was a younger conductor, he had had numerous controversies with his orchestras, and had realized that it had not been conducive to the music or himself, and so he had to develop a different way of working. 
His Ariadne and Tannhäuser were both excellent.

Lesser Spirits

In contrast to the Andrettas, Kouts and Layers, I have also come across a few 'lesser spirits'; some just lazy, others self-absorbed, conceited or just plain assholes. One conductor blatantly hit on any woman that entered the rehearsal room, told me various nasty things about himself (such as. "I don't like gay singers") and berated virtually everyone else involved in the production as soon as they were out of sight. Since I always sat right behind him, I had the doubtful pleasure of hearing all his nasty comments. He also openly said that he regarded himself as "probably the 3rd best conductor in the world", while in reality his performances became increasingly uneven, imprecise and unpredictable.
A few times I have also experienced conductors with so little time (or regard?) for a production that their presence became almost disturbing. It is not only that conductor's fault, but as much a result of greedy, manipulative agents and squishy administrators for whom it apparently makes no great difference whether the 'real' conductor is present or not. 
I probably should not complain, because it has resulted in me getting hundreds of hours of physical experience as an opera conductor, but my inner idealist tells me that something is wrong when the assistant conductor is responsible for 60-70% of a rehearsal period. 


For the assistant conductor it's "all guts and no glory", and the biggest, inherent problem with the role as assistant conductor is that you are trapped in a kind of vacuum between your own ambitions (towards the music) and your commitments to the production's 'real' conductor. It is completely irrelevant whether I personally think something should be in a certain way in relation to the score; if Maestro want something else, I must do my best to honor it. And yet, integrity is such an important a part of the conductors duties, that by not doing things the way you really believe in, but rather out of obligation to the your role as an assistant, you are betraying one of your absolute core competenecies. This fact becomes even more apparent, and even more of a problem, as you develop your own skills and ability to make good choices.
The operas I have been affiliated with at Royal Theatre include 'Das Rheingold', 'Valkyrie', 'Siegfried', 'Götterdämmerung', 'Tristan and Isolde', 'Wozzek', 'Don Carlos', 'Eugene Onegin', 'Elektra', 'Die Frau Ohne Schatten', 'Mascarade', 'Le Nozze di Figaro', 'Tosca', 'The Rake's Progress' and many more, but my time as assistant conductor at the Royal Theatre ends this season (11/12) with 'Parsifal', where I will assist Hartmut Haenchen (Keith Warner directing).

I no longer want to be the assistant, because I don't develop anymore in that capacity. I believe that by now I have made ​​myself worthy of taking the next step, and I can no longer accept not being able to just do things my way.

- Jesper

If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...