25th anniversary season

A2  Busoni. Ravel. Strauss
More information and Tickets on-line

I imagine my dreams and believe they will come true

When Kaspar Zehnder’s pleasant voice answered on the other end of the line, he still sounded slightly excited. “I was on a hike, I’ve just returned,” he said. “But we can certainly begin!” I was a bit jealous because I can only dream about rocks and mountains here in Prague. So I rather turned the conversation to music quickly. Because there are a lot of things I am interested in, not only the fact that Kaspar Zehnder and PKF – Prague Philharmonia have some common history.

When it comes to French music, you are well-known to be a great authority and an excellent performer. Is this because you are Swiss, thus close to France?

I think that it is mainly because I play the flute. Thanks to flute, I discovered the world of Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Ibert, Debussy and Ravel very early on. Through them, I developed a very warm relationship with French music. But going back to your question, Swiss people have the advantage of living between the Italians, French, Germans and Austrians. At the same time, you are not far from Spain or the Slavonic countries either. This is why we often tend to be better at interpreting Debussy compared to an average Austrian and play Schubert better than the French. Nevertheless, we pay for this advantage by not having much of our own.

This is my next question. Is there in fact anything like a Swiss art style?

The Swiss should have more trust in themselves in this regard, I think. The problem with Swiss identity is that we are not a nation but a federation of twenty completely different nationalities. People from Geneva have absolutely nothing in common with those living in Zürich for instance. They don’t know the local orchestras, the musicians and overall, it is a whole different market, different language, different religion. The world also subconsciously ascribes Swiss artists to other nations based on the places where they worked or their names. Dürrenmatt was “German”; Honegger and Paul Klee were “French” …

… and Jean-Jacques Rousseau too, of course …

I have been very interested in this in the recent years and I have deliberately begun searching for music by Swiss composers, such as Joseph Laubert, a contemporary of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy. I believe it is important to discover the cultural values of our nation. Let’s not restrict ourselves to making great watches and chocolate. We also have a lot to offer when it comes to art!

A number of composers found their temporary refuge in Switzerland. Have any of them ever had a significant influence on Swiss art?

Definitely Igor Stravinsky. When he came to Switzerland in 1917, he met Ernest Ansermet, a very young, innovative conductor who cooperated with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Apart from that, Ansermet founded the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918. Back then, culture was not doing very well in Switzerland and that is when those two geniuses came into the picture, together with Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, a writer and one of the leading personalities of the francophone part of Switzerland, and introduced the project entitled L´histoire de soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). I find this to be a purely Swiss piece which entered the global music history.

In 1916, the dada movement was officially established in Zürich. Why do you think this happened in Switzerland in particular?

My teacher Aurèle Nicolet once told me: “You have two options in Switzerland: you either emigrate or go mad.” We are a small country framed by mountains. And if you do not climb to their tops every now and then, such as I did earlier today, you can begin to feel trapped. So, going back to your question – I believe that artists in my country have always felt drawn to abstraction, humour, freshness, lightness. By the way, such tendencies are thriving again nowadays with the young generation of artists.

In reaction to being hemmed in by mountains? You see, mountains have the opposite effect on me. They make me feel that there is something higher, something beyond me. And my problems suddenly seem absolutely insignificant …

… and the universe, nature, God are far, far bigger. This is a very beautiful thought, of course.

Your conducting teacher Ewald Körner was from Czech town Nejdek. Was he the person who opened the world of Czech music to you?

Certainly. Ewald was a Czech German, who studied with Joseph Keilberth. He worked in Prague during the Second World War and later became the chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, the orchestra formed by German musicians who were forced to leave Czechoslovakia based on the Benes decrees. It was Ewald who taught me to truly love music, the Czech one in particular. When I then was in Prague for the first time as a member of the European Mozart Academy, it was a bit of a shock for me in fact. I was strolling around the Lesser Quarter and I felt so at home there. I am almost convinced that I must have lived in Prague in one of my previous lives. When I came to the Rudolfinum, I recollected Ewald talking about it and I thought: “Now, I am finally here but still only as a tourist. I have to come back one day as a soloist.” This was in 1996 and it felt like a dream. And ten years after that, I was the chief conductor of PKF.

Looking at your Prague programme with PKF for the concert on 28th October, you combine Bach, Busoni, Ravel and Strauss. Those are four completely different worlds. Why did you choose these authors for one evening?

If we consider Anton Webern instead of Bach, we have four composers together with Busoni, Ravel and Strauss, who lived more or less in the same period, though in four completely different composition worlds. Despite that, they all – apart from Busoni – refer to the same time period in the selected pieces – the Baroque. Webern refers to Bach, Ravel to Couperin, Strauss to Lully. Busoni also has a close link with the works by Johann Sebastian Bach, but in Divertimento in particular, we rather head references to Haydn and early Classicism.

Let’s talk a bit about Webern.

Ricercar, which is part of The Musical Offering, was initially composed for cembalo. But I somehow subconsciously sense the organ in this composition and I dare say Webern felt the same way. And just like God breathed the breath of life into Adam, Webern breathed the sound of a modern orchestra into the Ricercar. The structure and colours of his orchestration remind me of Paul Klee’s paintings. The harps take up the string harmonic and a single diminuendo tone follows in the trumpet … Webern’s Ricercar is the synthesis of Romanticism and abstraction where each orchestra player has to feel the whole perfectly. This is why you need time to interpret the piece ideally. You need time to get into the structure. Paradoxically, only then we can also hear Bach there, hiding behind Webern’s fascinating orchestration.

What is the conductor’s role in this jigsaw?

The role of a sound engineer who makes sure that the resulting sound is perfectly balanced.

You will also perform as a flautist during the concert. How difficult is it to combine the role of the conductor and the soloist?

It gives you less time to inspire the orchestra in details. You work pretty much like a chamber ensemble the core of which is to listen to each other.

Did the fact that you play the flute influence you as a conductor?

For sure. I believe that to be a good conductor, you have to be a good musician. I often play chamber music as a flautist. Thanks to that, I discovered many secrets about bowing and I am very sensitive when it comes to intonation.

What creates the basis of the sound of an orchestra?

Definitely a high-quality string sound. But it is only the connection with the wind instruments that gives the orchestra its colours and personality. I think of the wind instruments as bubbles in champagne.

Which 20th and 21st century composers are close to you and why?

Certainly Ligeti. In my mind, he embodies the ideal mixture of fun, seriousness, difficulty and attractiveness. When it comes to living composers, working with people I like and with whom I see eye to eye is more important than the quality of music for me. Because I simply think that it is very difficult to judge contemporary music.

Working on a new piece, can you speak up if you want to change something?

Yes and I would sometimes simply do it without asking the author even if he or she stands right behind my back. Of course I don’t change the notes; it usually concerns the dynamics or the balance of sound. The best cooperation in the recent years was probably with Cécile Marti with whom I worked on her big composition for orchestra and choir entitled Seven Towers. We then arranged seven or may be even eight rehearsals. And Cécile was sitting right behind me the entire time so that at any point, I could ask her anything and she always knew precisely what was going on. At the same time, she did not interfere in the rehearsal at all. She trusted me to do my utmost for the best possible outcome. She was like a dictionary which you can refer to anytime. Something like Google. She knew every single note of her composition. It was a great collaboration and the audience recognised this immediately when the piece was performed.

You are the artistic director of two festivals and participate in creating the dramaturgy of two orchestras. How can you create a programme nowadays to attract both the audiences and the sponsors but which does not become a ‘blockbuster’?

I believe that the most important thing is to win the trust of the orchestra, the audience, the administrative staff and the sponsors. Still, it is definitely not always possible to perform everything you’d like. The worst possible feedback for sponsors is if the audience did not like their “gift”. And I know from experience that one unhappy person is enough even if there are hundred happy people besides that one individual. Wanting to educate too much does no good because the sponsors want mainly a pleasant evening for their guests. The situation is different with your subscribers. You know a bit more about this audience. Furthermore, subscribers go to a concert because they want, they are interested. It is very useful to ask about their opinion from time to time. They sometimes like to criticise to feel important … But it is crucial to lead a dialogue with them, to explain why the programme is as it is and tone down their displeasure if necessary. I think that human approach is key.

Do you have a formula for finding new audiences?

In Biel in particular, there are 35 % foreigners, often immigrants, some parts of the town are more than 50 % Muslim. We are trying to bring these audiences to our concerts as well, we organise public rehearsals, work with children and play concerts for schools. It is almost unbelievable how many of these children have never encountered classical music in their life. We also visit schools and give students the opportunity to play with us. Such events have great atmosphere. We also cooperate with the Guerilla Classics organisation from Zürich which came up with concerts for the construction workers in Tonhalle for instance. They organise chamber concerts for the workers in a hall under reconstruction. This nicely emphasises the purpose of the building and the workers know that they are working on a reconstruction of a concert hall so that concerts can take place there in the future. Or the swimming area of the Lake Biel. In the summer, there is a boat by the shore with music stands and instruments. Musicians would swim to the boat, get out of the water and play a short concert for the people around. We have also cooperated with the break dance community which was using the empty space in front of the Biel concert hall. We came out there and played parts from Carmen to which they danced. It was a fantastic success. Surely also because of the spontaneity of it. The conditions for such things are perfect in Biel. This is also thanks to the fact that it is a small town where people know us and we know them. This is why they like to join in. But it needs time.

In an interview, you said: “I left Prague ten years ago and I feel that I have changed a lot since then. I am someone completely different now.” So my last question is: who is Kaspar Zehnder now? And where would he like to see himself in ten years’ time?

The biggest changes concern my family. I had two kids thanks to whom I learn something new every day. I have begun to appreciate the fact that I can live and work in Switzerland. I am the first Swiss conductor of my generation who became the chief conductor of a Swiss orchestra in the past fifty years. I can thus have breakfast and lunch with my kids every day and “pop in” to rehearsals in the meantime, which is amazing. I have also certainly matured as a conductor. I was still a bit shy ten years ago. Now I know exactly what I can do with an orchestra and I have become naturally more confident. Thanks to my work in Biel, I have also developed in terms of operatic repertoire and I get more and more of such offers, mainly in France. As for the future, I dream about conducting big symphonic compositions – such as The Rite of Spring or Petrushka. This brings me to the second question, where I would like to see myself in ten years’ time. I would like to cooperate with big symphony orchestras and renowned opera houses. It would be amazing if festival, opera and symphony orchestra could interconnect into one project. And this is not unrealistic. I think about this a lot. I am in some sort of a transformation period. I even imagine how this opera house of mine would look like, if the seats would be blue or red. I imagine my dreams and hope they will come true.

Kaspar Zehnder was the chief conductor of PKF – Prague Philharmonia in 2005–2008. He is currently the chief conductor of the Hradec Kralové Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic and the Biel Solothurn Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland. He is the artistic director of the Murten Classics Festival and the artistic supervisor of the Klangantrisch festival. He graduated from the Bern University and then went to Paris to develop his skills as the assistant to the conductor of Orchestre de Paris. His most significant musical mentors include Heidi Indermühle and Aurèle Nicolet (flute) as well as Ewald Körner (conducting). He studied conducting with Ralf Weikert, Charles Dutoit, Werner Andreas Albert and Horst Stein. He made his debut in Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2007. He regularly cooperates with a number of renowned European orchestras and performs at prestigious festivals, including Folle Journée de Nantes and Festival de Besançon Franche-Comté. Apart from conducting, he still plays the flute and performs as soloist as well as with chamber ensembles. He often likes to explore less well-known repertoire and performs contemporary music. In 2015, he premiered a chamber version of Dvorak’s opera Rusalka by Slovak composer and conductor Marian Lejava. His recording of the works by German composer Robert Radecki won the 5 Diapasons award. Together with PKF – Prague Philharmonia, he will perform an original programme with works by authors of the first half of the 20th century referring to baroque and early classicistic music. The concert will take place in Prague’s Rudolfinum on 28th October

Text by Iva Nevoralová
Photo: Sabine Burger
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