This is the last season of Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider’s first appointment as head of the Lyon-based orchestra: time for an initial appraisal, but also for plans for the following term, which will take him up to June 2027!
How has this initial term changed your vision of the artistic and human collective embodied by the Orchestra?
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider : In any relationship, and especially a professional one, the initial phase of becoming acquainted gives way to a longer period during which each party learns to work together. For me, that means understanding the mechanisms to which the musicians respond best. To take a very simple, down-to-earth example: a D is not in tune. It’s an objective fact. You can state it just as objectively: “Mr or Mrs X, your D is not in tune”, because you know that the person you are addressing is both sufficiently receptive and not going to take offence. With other people, you’ll have to mince your words: “Mr or Mrs X, can you be very careful to get this D absolutely in tune next time?”. And for some people, you’ll have to bang your first on the table: “Mr or Mrs X, that D is off pitch!” Now, imagine that you have to calibrate the most appropriate approach, not for just one person but for 100 people at once, taking into account their individual differences and the sometimes contradictory group dynamics in which they find themselves. That’s what a conductor learns to master over the lengthy duration of a directorship. In Lyon, the musicians all share the same generosity, instinct and virtuosity. My goal is therefore to train them to listen to each other, to notice how the main melodic themes circulate among the sections, to anticipate the changes of dynamics in the following bars, etc. As you’re playing an instrument, your brain is submerged with information and the conductor must help you prioritise the information coming from the colleagues around you.
Which concerts have left you with the most enduring memories?
N. S.-Z. : There are many of them but, at the risk of forgetting some of them: the Moscow concert during our Russian tour; Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as the “Resurrection Symphony”; Smetana’s From the Homeland; our concerts with Maria João Pires, in particular the one performed at the Philharmonie de Paris. All of those marvellous soloists that we have received, including Gidon Kremer, Yefim Bronfman and Thomas Hampson; the extraordinary precision with which Olga Neuwirth listened and spoke during her composer’s residency, which yet again highlighted how comfortable this orchestra feels with the music of our time. We’re very fortunate: some people need alcohol or drugs to project themselves beyond the confines of reality, whereas the major works and the major artists bring us the same thing at no risk to our health!
You mentioned Russia, a country you got to know well when you spent several years as guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. How do you see the rifts experienced by both the Ukrainian musicians, who have been deprived of the stage in their country by the destruction and fighting, and the Russian artists, ordered to choose between exile and suspicions of dishonourable conduct if they remain in their country?
N. S.-Z. : Before I can give any reply: where Ukraine is concerned, we’re talking about a humanitarian disaster, deaths and the destruction of a country. And on the part of the Russian invader, an unjustifiable and inexcusable act. Bearing in mind this context, I feel an immense sadness. I know Russian musicians and audiences well, along with certain high-ranking public servants who, just hours before the invasion, refused to believe that Putin would commit such a folly. I think this is a very important point. Nothing would be more dangerous than to hold the musicians responsible, not even those who may have voted for this regime in the past, since virtually no-one thought it was possible for the rhetoric to be translated into a crime. I don’t want to pass judgement on those who remain, since certain family reasons can run counter to your deepest beliefs. What I know for sure is that it is a tragedy for Russian culture, that treasure of our common heritage, after the wonderful years of exchanges and openness that followed the fall of the USSR. And also, that our aid must go first towards helping Ukrainian artists. At the ONL, we are doing this by provisionally accepting into our ranks women musicians who had to flee the bombing and no longer had work.
What challenges will you face in your next term, to avoid repeating yourself?
N. S.-Z. : Repeating oneself or renewing oneself is essentially a question of temperament. I’m one of those people who are never satisfied, and this can be terribly frustrating for those around me. The great masters represent an unattainable ideal; the world-works of Brahms or Mahler cannot be expressed in a single interpretation because it would be saturated and incomprehensible. Rather as if you were hoping to smell each flower as you crossed a park, you would never be finished! A concert is a series of choices and any virtuality that has not been taken up represents a failure. So much the better. Not only would the unachievable perfect interpretation seem devoid of consistency by refusing all renunciation, it would condemn you to never again play the work that you too successfully achieved.
So are you considering certain new directions?
N. S.-Z. : Yes, many, but more specifically Haydn and Mozart. They enable the orchestra to come close to a form of musical abstraction. Can Mozart be called abstract? Yes, like all classical composers, whose scores are almost devoid of indications. Unlike those of Mahler, a great paranoiac who trusted no-one and noted every detail of the phrasing. The appropriation of this repertoire by specialised ensembles playing period instruments has deprived symphony orchestras of the sense of tempo and polyphony. That’s the intellectual reason for returning to these works; the other is the pleasure of the audience and the musicians!
To do so, would you need to reduce the number of musicians, say from 100 to 40?
N. S.-Z. : That’s a long-standing debate, during which the former “modern” thinkers have aged themselves. The late Nikolaus Harnoncourt or my friend Gidon Kremer were revolutionaries during my youth; today, they are icons that some other people would like to tear down. It would be quite possible to double the strings and bring in 24 cellos and double basses. Mozart was amazed to hear that many instruments at Mannheim which, at the time, was one of the few European orchestras to have so many instruments. You gain in density what you lose in transparency and nimbleness. I, for my part, opt for rather smaller teams, but I’m not aiming for any musicological medal. Being inspired by the stylistic research that goes hand-in-hand with period instruments is very interesting, but mustn’t become an end in itself. Simply playing without vibrato has never been sufficient to make a good musician – nor has the opposite!
The pandemic and then the reopening of concert halls went hand-in-hand with heated debates on cultural institutions’ relationship with their audience. Now that the dust has settled, what has changed?
N. S.-Z. : Too little time has gone by to really size up the situation. We’ve been operating more or less normally for only a year now: it’s too recent to confirm any trends on the ideal duration of a concert, the repertories that attract audiences or not, etc. The only general rule seems to be unpredictability! In some cities, what used to be audiences’ preferred evening is now having trouble selling, while there is strong audience demand for Sunday afternoons, which were never popular before. The habit of making last-minute decisions, which dates from when the health restrictions were partially eased, now seems to have become a fixture. A significant proportion of elderly concert-goers has not returned, but at the Lyon Auditorium, we are seeing large numbers of young people, many of whom are clearly unfamiliar with the works, the performers and even the codes of classical concerts. It’s very exciting and places a huge responsibility on our shoulders. Marketing must now try to understand how we attracted them and how we can do even better. For my part, I need to choose programmes and conduct them in a way that will make them say, not: “What will we try next weekend?”, but “Let’s go back to hear the orchestra!”.
In a society undergoing far-reaching changes, what must a symphony orchestra become... and what should it remain?
N. S.-Z. : Become and remain: both terms are equally important. A hundred years ago, the ideal represented by the so-called learned arts went without saying: there was no need to explain their value. Today we are living in a utilitarian world and, in countries in which culture is subsidised, the State is required to justify the money it spends on it. We can always point to the well-established multiplying effect of our activities on the economy: for every euro spent on subsidising a ticket, there is a knock-on effect on transport, accommodation, restaurants... even hairdressers, so it is good for business! But if we confine ourselves to this sort of reply, we remain in the realm of purely material concerns, where there will always be more productive stakeholder than us. What we need to become is ambassadors for what we remain, namely the parties entrusted with safeguarding the most elevated legacy of the human mind, and the embodiment of a quest for excellence. And to do so, we must offset the collapse of education in the arts in the general school system of all countries, by taking on this role ourselves. Some types of music can be appreciated right from the very first listening. But a symphony by Mahler or an opera by Wagner, like a play by Shakespeare or a poem by Goethe, are too complex if the audience has not been prepared for the task. We will probably never be those who wait inside the temple for the novices to come to them. It is now up to us to innovate and to go out to look for those still unaware of the worlds awaiting them beyond the everyday and the mundane.
Interview conducted by Vincent Agrech on 25 February 2023.