Stephan Zilias: “anything other than music would have been a betrayal”

Our newest signing, conductor Stephan Zilias, speaks to Claire Jackson about recent projects, his relationship with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, his style of conducting, and building trust

Hello Stephan, congratulations on joining Askonas Holt’s roster. How has your summer been?

Pretty busy! I’ve just moved house: I was previously commuting between Bonn, where my wife and son were based and where I had been working at Bonn Opera House [until 2018], and Berlin, where I work with Deutsche Oper. The whole family has now moved to Berlin and my second son is almost here; he’s due in September. Work-wise, I’m focused on Don Giovanni [with Deutsche Oper], which is an opera I’ve done many times. It was the first opera I ever conducted – from the keyboard, during my student days – and that was in Cologne, with an independent opera group, where I did my undergraduate degree. Some pieces haunt you.

You’re also a big supporter of 20th and 21st century music, too.

Deutsche Oper gave the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Oceane last May. It’s so exciting to be present when a new piece is born. The outcome was very powerful; I hope it will be revived soon – it’s a piece that should be played more. Contemporary and 20th-century music has always been important to me. I studied with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and he is a champion of this repertoire. He introduced me to Ligeti, Messiaen, Eötvös, George Benjamin and Harrison Birtwistle, among many others. I was 16 when I started studying with Pierre-Laurent, and then later with Tamara Stefanovich [as a pianist]. I like the fact that you don’t always understand contemporary music when you first play it; making sense of the notes on the page is an intriguing process.

Are you still in touch with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich?

Yes, but unfortunately not too often. When I started working with Pierre-Laurent, I was completely green; I had no idea about anything. I played the piano decently enough to be accepted as his pupil but I didn’t know anything about life. I studied with him for five years. Last time I saw him and Tamara was Christmas last year and our little sons played together. Our relationship is different now. I still can’t think of Pierre-Laurent as a colleague – he’s more of an idol. I adore his professionalism, courage and dedication. As a musician and human being he was a formative influence.

Stephan Zilias © Simon Pauly

When did you decide to move from being a pianist to a conductor?

To be frank, I’ve always wanted to be a conductor. I told Pierre-Laurent this early on; I think he was a bit taken aback.

It’s quite unusual for a young student to know they want to focus on conducting.

I’ve found the profession of conducting fascinating ever since I first saw an orchestra in concert, which was probably around the age of 10. My aunt is a professional musician – the only one in our family – she was principal cello in a small opera house in Osnabrück. Through her I got to know a little bit about the role of a conductor. I didn’t want a career as a solo pianist. I loved playing chamber music – I used to have a piano trio, and at one point I considered taking it to a professional stage, but it’s difficult to make a living just from that.

Did you study any other instruments?

I played the trombone for a number of years, and I loved playing in an orchestra. I definitely preferred it to playing solo! I also played the viola a little bit.

That’s quite a diverse range of instruments. Is it helpful as a conductor to have that knowledge of different timbres?

I think so, although it’s equally important to know what it feels like to sit in an ensemble and produce notes, rather than just to know about specific instruments. There’s a vast different between being a player on stage and leading the music. I personally feel the rehearsals can be more nerve-wracking for a conductor than the performances – this is the opposite for players; if a horn splits a note during a concert then there’s no coming back; you are exposed.

What is your style of leadership as a conductor?

I try to get a list of the names of who is playing and try to establish a personal approach, rather than saying things like ‘second clarinet, you’re flat’ or ‘less trombone’. I know that some people might find it strange for a conductor to use names in this way, but I think it helps build a pleasant working environment. I try to build trust with my players through gesture, body language and words. You can hear it in the sound of the orchestra if you push ideas forward without listening; it becomes ugly.

What is the most important attribute in a conductor?

To be able to adapt. Especially when working with opera houses, where rehearsal time is so limited. You are always pressed with resources; maybe one or two rehearsals for a whole work. So time management is crucial. That’s rarely ever taught in college – I’m not sure it can be taught, really. For instance, if you have a full stage and orchestra rehearsal and you want to work on a section with the chorus, it can take a few minutes until everyone is in the correct position. Sometimes you need to consider set changes, which might affect the acoustic, and must be factored in to the rehearsal. That only really comes through experience.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

To be patient. I’m not naturally a patient man, but you need to get the right mix between patience and impatience. You must be proactive as a conductor, but then again you need to also reflect and let ideas settle and develop. I try to put opportunities in my diary for this mental breathing, even if it’s just a ten minute walk or a bike ride to the opera. The space gives me a moment to prepare in my mind. Now I have a family it has become more clear to me that there is always a ‘real’ life outside of the concert hall. We have to have temper and enthusiasm – and to fight to give our best at work – but at the end of the day, real stress is when your baby has a fever and there’s no doctor. That experience has been extremely healthy for me.

Stephan Zilias © Simon Pauly

How do you relax?

I have just cancelled my gym subscription as I have finally accepted that I will never use it! But I love swimming and being by the water. There are so many beautiful lakes around Berlin – there’s even one near the airport where you can swim and see the planes.

What would you be if you weren’t a conductor?

I think professionally for me there was no choice, this is what I’ve always wanted. I was also interested in Latin and Ancient Greek at school, so I may have studied classics, but doing anything other than music would have been a betrayal.

Stephan will be represented at Askonas Holt by Henry Lindsay, with support from Rona Eastwood and Kate Sweeney

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