You’re just back from the official handing over of the baton in Norway, beginning your tenure with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, how did it go?
It was a brilliant time. This year is also the 250th anniversary and it was extraordinary that it coincided with Andrew [Litton] leaving and me coming so we actually got to share a concert. Conductors often don’t even talk to each other, especially successor and predecessor, so that was lovely! He was very generous about the whole thing. I got to hold Grieg’s 1870 mother of pearl baton, which was pretty incredible.
Does that kind of tradition carry a weight?
To have that longevity as an orchestra is amazing, but it’s also a good time to start.
The first time I conducted excerpts from Peer Gynt with the orchestra it felt like standing in front of the Vienna Philharmonic for the New Year’s Ball! But they are not precious about it. They adore the music and they want to be inspired, same as anything else. The Norwegians have a lot of pride in their heritage that you have to look after, a sense of shared history and community which is very important to them. That’s a lovely thing to be able to curate for a little while.
How will that affect you?
The main way is that they are really proud of the sound they make. There is a very specific string school in Norway and I was struck by that the first time I went, back in 2009. It’s mellow and voluptuous but also lively so things have an effervescent energy as well as having this lovely sound. It’s really unique. It’s something that they cherish and they want whoever is standing in front of them to cherish it as well.
What drew you to the orchestra in the first place?
In many ways I think it was that. Bergen gets better known through the tours they have done, they were at the Proms this summer and the recordings they have done with Andrew Litton and me. I remember flying in for the first time and seeing this view over the fjords and thinking, it’s not bad here! On a clear day you can see the whole coastline of Norway, it’s breath-taking.
The musicians are incredibly energised. Even if you do a piece they know well, they want to work hard at it and they want to know exactly what you want. They delve deep into the music and they have the time to do it too, which is a big privilege for me.
Having longer rehearsal times must be liberating
In England you barely get a couple of days and you sometimes only get one rehearsal before the concert day, it’s much quicker. What you find when you have these longer rehearsal times is that the players want to find more and more and more in the music. That is challenging for a conductor, and it’s also very rewarding.
What do you hope to do with them?
We’re doing a wide range of things, which is important, just like I found in opera. You should give the audience the broadest diet you possibly can. We’re starting off with Mahler 1 and some Stravinsky, Knussen and Britten, and before Christmas we are doing Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder which is really a huge thing for anyone to do. It will be my first time conducting it and we’ve got loads of invited choirs, it will be really wonderful.
They haven’t done so much mid/early Romantic music, so we are going to do Brahms cycles, lots of Schumann, Haydn as well actually. We are doing a Creation this time next year. I feel orchestras don’t really play enough of that anyway; it’s great music for turning orchestras into chamber musicians. I think the better the orchestra, the more chamber music-like they are. It’s about the quality of listening within a group and the confidence of taking ownership over certain things.
We’re also doing a whole concert of premieres of Norwegian music in December.
Can you tell me more about that?
There is a very good stable of young Norwegian composers at the moment, I mean really good. There are certain things which are in the forefront of my mind about that. One is the composers and another is promoting Norwegian soloists and especially singers.
There aren’t that many Norwegian singers internationally and I can’t really work out why. We are going to hold auditions with the agencies in Oslo and I really want to tease them out. The trouble is on the one hand if you work somewhere like Bergen or Oslo, you are trying to be international so you might look too readily to foreign soloists, but actually it is much more interesting to promote great musicians who come from that area.
When you take over as director of an orchestra, is there a sense of dialogue between you and them? How much are you leading them, and how much are they telling you what they want?
They are very democratic as a people and that ends up with this incredible ownership of what they do in terms of the fact that I am standing there, the repertoire chosen – it’s a real team there. They feel that it has been their decision to do whatever is coming and that is a very good energy to be around.
We’ve been through some tricky things too – having to put together very difficult music very quickly. That stuff either breaks relationships or bonds you quite tightly. They have really put it on the line for me at certain times already.
That sounds interesting; can you give you me an example?
I think recording Janáček was a huge thing. We’ve released two discs already and are about to edit our third, the Glagolitic Mass. To start with, there wasn’t the experience of playing this music but very quickly they engaged with it. What we ended up with was the freshness of new repertoire but with the brilliance of great playing as well which was fantastic. It was a real discovery for all of them.
Does that make you discover his music in a different way too?
Yes, you definitely have to reanalyse how you talk about it and how you think about it. I’m so proud of it and I hope they are too.
Do you feel a sense of freedom to be out there, out of the white heat of London?
Yes maybe. I am very aware that I’ve done everything basically for the first time in the most heavily critiqued city in the world so it is great to escape for a while. I’ll still do lots in London and around the UK but to have that balance of things is great.
That said, they really want me to dig deep when we are making music and that brings its own pressure as well. There is no suggestion that the quality is less just because it’s not London.
What about your work with youth orchestras?
I do the Barbican Young Orchestra, talking to people like Jonathan Vaughan at the Guildhall and Nick Kenyon about what the role of youth music is. I’m also now the ‘Sir Charles Mackerras Chair of Conducting’ at the Royal Academy, where I studied myself. It’s an educational institution which I love.
Back in Bergen we are starting a Youth Orchestra, which is very exciting. We all felt that there should be something professionally run, which is right under the umbrella of the orchestra, like the Hallé Youth Orchestra which I started.
Also, Norway has a different issue. What we find in Bergen is that there is a huge student population but not enough of them come to our concerts. They are intrepid in many ways, they are very powerful actually and it would be lovely if they understood more about what we did and spread the word that music making and listening are not something for the over 50s. We also talk a lot about outreach work, because although there is a general love of the arts and respect for culture, the orchestra doesn’t go into schools in the same way. We could really get ahead of the game with that in terms of showing the political classes how important it is. I think there is a lot of un-mined potential in all directions.
You’ve also got a lot of other debuts coming up including the Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre National de France, Chicago Lyric Opera and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Is there an overriding strategy in choosing the orchestras at this stage of your career?
You need the opportunities and then you work out where the chemistry works.
Whereas a lot of my colleagues 10 years ago were going to wonderful German orchestras, I haven’t really done any of that because I have been in opera rehearsals for 9-10 months of the year. So I am doing that now.
I’ve recently debuted with Frankfurt Radio and that was great and I am working with the Leipzig Gewandhaus with a wonderful programme, which I am really looking forward to as well. To be working with them is pretty amazing. I have always adored their sound; it is incredible what Chailly has done with them. We are doing Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Berlioz Death of Cleopatra with Anna Caterina Antonacci. It’s the most extraordinarily dramatic scena, but orchestras don’t really know it so well. Once they get into it they tend to really wonder at it.
So when you walk through the door and have your first session with an orchestra what you are trying to achieve? What happens in your first 15 minutes?
You are true to yourself. You have to listen to what you are getting, and work out what it is you need to do, to find what you want out of it.
Often I get them to play with me for a short while, so I can hear them but more and more I like to rehearse in a lot of detail very early on. I never used to do that but I feel they want to know what you’re about and the earlier you can show them, the better. In a way the most intense rehearsal is the first one I do. On some levels that’s frustrating for them because they are not getting to just play, but in the long term that works out best.
Also, it’s quite nice when a piece isn’t absolutely in their repertoire, because you can shape it more easily. When you go to an orchestra and you find they play, let’s say Brahms 3, in a particular way then before you can get what you want you need to get rid of what is in their muscles already. That’s often the hardest thing. It’s not that they are resistant psychologically to what you are doing but they have something which works already and you need to say, well let’s do it like this. That can be a tough process.
How about Chicago – you’re doing Rosenkavalier again, and this time you’ll be working with Matthew Rose who you know well
Amazingly that’s my fourth run at the age of 40, which is a real treat. I’ve done it twice at ENO and once in New York. In a way it’s a lovely rite of passage for me. John Tomlinson was my first Baron Ochs, and he’d already done it so many times, he helped me a lot. We talked endlessly about it especially, about how to accompany text, and I feel like now I can give that to someone else because it will be Matthew’s first time. I am so excited about finding that with him. As a piece it is so complicated and so long, it’s a life time’s work just to get better at it, so it’s really wonderful to do it again.
Can you tell me more about your recordings, you’ve done a huge number already – almost 30 at last count I think
When Chandos approached I was still pretty young, and not having my own orchestra I didn’t want to do very mainstream stuff. I had this thing about Polish music. I saw Simon Rattle do King Roger at the Proms in 1999 and I couldn’t believe the sound of it. It’s incredible music. Doing all the Lutoslowski and Szymanowksi with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was wonderful because they had done most of the UK premieres conducted by the composers and they really respected the music.
With the Bergen Philharmonic we’re finishing off a Sibelius disc with songs arranged by Rautavaara, sung by Gerald Finley. They are incredibly atmospheric; inventive but subtle. We will also record Gurrelieder live, and then we have plans with Bartók and Grieg, and we’re looking at doing some oratorios of Schumann. There are two Requiems which he wrote that are sensational.
I increasingly like doing a lot of concerts before we make recordings, it’s really important and the more mainstream the work, the more necessary it is. The CBSO Mendelssohn cycle worked because we really invested in the concerts before we even thought about recording them. In Bergen we have good opportunity too because we’ve got the time.
Life sounds exhausting but exciting
The thing about my job is I will never learn every great piece of music that I want to conduct or record, so the possibilities of what I could do are endless. It’s hard work but you almost always get more out of what you do than you put in, which makes it a wonderful job.