Sheer Joy

The conductor Antonello Manacorda in conversation

Dirigent Antonello Manacorda
(Photo: Nikolaj Lund)

Antonello Manacorda is a disciple of Claudio Abbado. He was Konzertmeister of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and co-founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In the meantime, he has become one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. In May, he makes his Berliner Philharmoniker debut. A conversation about scores, batons and the beauty of melancholy.

Herr Manacorda, what emotions are you feeling as you look forward to your debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker?

Keen anticipation! I consider it a great honour. The real reason why I’ve lived in Berlin for 22 years and have come to regard myself as a Berliner is that Claudio Abbado was principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. In the early 1990s I was Konzertmeister of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and subsequently held the same position as co-founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Because Claudio was living in Berlin, we decided that the orchestra’s offices should be located here. A year later I came to Berlin and learned German. I know many of the Philharmoniker musicians, some of them from my time with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. As tutors in the preparatory phases, they taught us about orchestral playing.  

Does knowing many of the musicians and having heard the orchestra often allow you to calculate exactly how the collaboration will go?

This is something one can never predict with any orchestra in the world. There’s always an element of tension. Two entities come together for four days – two days of rehearsals, two concerts – and enter into dialogue with one another, later with the audience as well. We’re human, so one can never know how it will turn out. What I actually was able to contribute in advance to the collaboration’s success was the choice of programme: music close to my heart which I regard as among the most important in the repertoire. I can show who I am with these pieces and what is really important to me. The orchestra has invited me – whether it likes me will be determined at the moment the music is performed. Authenticity and honesty surely play a major role in this.

You’ve recorded Schubert’s complete symphonies with the Kammerakademie Potsdam. In your first concert with Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin you conducted Schubert’s “Great C major” Symphony and now with the Berliner Philharmoniker you’re making your debut with the “Unfinished”. Won’t you be typecast as a Schubert specialist?

It was the Philharmoniker’s wish to do Schubert with me. I take that as a compliment because it shows that they value my Schubert interpretations. The method involved in studying and recording a composer with one’s own orchestra over several years and that of working up a symphony in four days as a guest conductor are two entirely different things. But it is true: Schubert is one of my favourite composers.

A naive question: What can you possibly find in Schubert’s “Unfinished” that will be new to the Philharmoniker, a work these musicians know like the back of their hand?

The Philharmoniker don’t play Schubert all that often! They performed the “Unfinished” with Rattle and Abbado. And this season Kirill Petrenko conducted the “Great C major”. The answer to your question is: a piece sounds new every time. Just the way I breathe, phrase and stress details already will make it sound different from previous performances.

How did you choose the other three pieces?

My second great wish was Mahler. I performed large segments of his oeuvre under Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. As already mentioned, I played in the Gustav Maher Jugendorchester and co-founded the Mahler Chamber Orchestra – so Mahler is a very important composer for me. I feel especially close to the Rückert Lieder, which I often experienced in concert. To be able to conduct them here has a powerful emotional significance for me. And to have Christian Gerhaher as soloist is the ultimate! The next step was to add Schoenberg. His Second Chamber Symphony, begun in 1906 but only completed in 1939 in the USA, is seldom peformed.

The deep, tragic expressionism of the first movement is followed by the almost cubist neoclassicism of the second. This Janus-faced nature in turn generates the link to Mahler and Schubert – but also to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which opens the programme. Only after adopting the sequence of the works did I notice that, apart from the Schoenberg, they all end with a diminuendo. That’s something curious I wasn’t aware of before. I think the four compositions reflect who I am and what’s important to me. There is a lot in minor, a lot of melancholy. I’m not interested in a great burst of applause after the last note – what matters is simply great music!

Why did you exchange the violin for the conductor’s rostrum?

I saw it less as a change than as an organic development. I identified with the role of Konzertmeister but never actually thought of myself as a violinist. I was much more interested in the function within the orchestra than in the instrument per se, or in the question of how I move my hands. I was also involved in the founding of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado. Assembling a top-class orchestra from scratch was a fascinating assignment. And at some point I got the feeling of reaching a limit as a playing musician.

When I led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the concertmaster’s music desk, I felt my expressive potential restricted by the instrument in my hand. Then one day I was invited to conduct a touring opera in Italy. I thought it was crazy! When I asked Simon Rattle whether I should accept, he replied: “I’ve always thought you have to conduct. Just try it!” So I tried – and probably didn’t do especially well. Although my enthusiasm was aroused, it was also clear that I would need to learn conducting in earnest. That’s why I went to Helsinki to study with Jorma Panula.

Jorma Panula hardly ever speaks about the music. He mainly teaches technique, organization and how to communicate with an orchestra. Aren’t those things that are only learned in practice?

Quite honestly, one hardly ever speaks with him at all. But Jorma is the greatest pedagogue I’ve ever experienced. He has equipped almost every conductor of my generation – me included, of course – with tools that make it possible for us to learn from ourselves. As a conductor, you are your own teacher.

So studying conducting is useful?

I think it’s very important, but the question is, with whom? It’s very difficult to develop didactics for conducting. I think Jorma has developed an extremely good and successful one. And, of course, you need practice. In Finland it’s a given for students to work with an orchestra. Students can be engaged to rehearse for very little money. It’s very important to acquire experience dealing with musicians. My years as a concertmaster were a great help, but it’s quite a different thing to stand in front of an orchestra. That is indescribably difficult to learn.

You started out with chamber orchestras and small opera companies, became principal conductor of the Kammerakademie Potsdam and have led Het Gelders Orkest (now the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra) for a number of years. Now you’re conducting at the state operas of Berlin, Munich and Vienna, at Covent Garden and the Met, and the Dresden Staatskapelle and Zürich Tonhalle orchestras. Does it feel like you’ve reached a peak?

The work changes because the standard of the musicians I’m working with now is extremely high. Jorma Panula always said: “Don’t bother the orchestra, help it!” That’s his core principle. As banal as this may sound: It is extremely important to understand the conductor’s job as helping. Orchestras can already play pretty well on their own. Having someone stand in front of them is only meant to enable better mutual understanding and more concentrated listening, and to help find a common direction. Of course I need to exercise authority – otherwise it won’t work – but not in the despotic sense. Less good orchestras need much more help. When one conducts really good orchestras more and more often, one is increasingly liberated from the technical difficulties of ensemble playing. One gets simply to make music! And that is a great pleasure.

Haven’t you asked yourself for a long time: When will the call from the Philharmoniker finally come? You’re making your debut at the proud age of 51!

Basically I’m a young conductor! I’ve only been conducting for 17 years! Although I’m happy that I get the opportunity for better music making with even better musicians, that was never my explicit goal. Making music is my calling. Working with these orchestras is sheer joy.

And then you always back come from the musical capitals of the world to the Kammerakademie Potsdam!

It isn’t as famous as the Berliner Philharmoniker, that’s true. But as a chamber orchestra it belongs in the same league. The Kammerakademie is one of the best chamber orchestras in the world! After ten years now, it has become my family. We understand one another almost implicitly.

Is it true that you no longer have an instrument at home?

I have a mandolin – but no violin and no piano any more. I don’t at all miss playing an instrument with my hands. As a conductor I’m making music with my hands in a different way. And I don’t even miss it when reading and learning music; I read my scores like books.

One last question: You received scores from Claudio Abbado and a baton. Will you use them in the May concerts?

No. Claudio’s old baton is in my case and won’t be touched. It would be much too long for me anyway – it is very long. But it’s coming along with me in May to the Philharmonie. I always have three batons with me: the one I’m using, a replacement in case that one should break, and Claudio’s. It’s a lovely, sentimental memory. But to tell the whole story: When I came to Berlin, Claudio was in his last season with the Philharmoniker. On one occasion he invited me and said: “I don’t need all of this any more. Here, this stack of scores – works by Nono, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder and others – wouldn’t you like to have them?” And then he fetched a tailcoat from his wardrobe that he’d been given by Giorgio Armani. “Take it”, he said. That was absurd. In those days, I’d never even thought about conducting myself – and then I leave Claudio’s apartment with scores, a baton and a tailcoat. (Laughs.) But I don’t believe that had any deeper significance.   

Interviewer: Arnt Cobbers

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