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Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

Music Director of the Orchestre national de Lyon

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider will become the seventh music director of the Orchestre national de Lyon (ONL) in September 2020: a landmark in a prominent international career that in recent years has seen the violinist also take on the role of conductor.

Vidéo-Portrait

Interview

Sharing music

On the cusp of his first season as Music Director of the Orchestre national de Lyon, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider talks about how he sees his new role and music itself: as a shared experience of beauty and joy.

N. S.-Z. : I remember our first week of work: we were rehearsing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, a very well-known score, so dangerous for both the orchestra and the conductor. Dangerous because it brings back memories that can interfere with or even inhibit the way they play. Musicians are tempted to slip into a routine when they're playing such frequently-performed landmarks of the repertoire. With the ONL, it was quite the opposite! This is an orchestra that likes to venture off the beaten path and try new things as it strives for the best. There was an instant connection: we share an ideal that, admittedly, is never achieved but which will constantly drive us forward.

N. S.-Z. : I think a conductor should not be solely focused on conducting. Conducting is an abstract form of music-making: a conductor needs to do something practical, too, like playing an instrument or composing. The advantage of playing an instrument is that you're immersed in the sound, the vibration, the resonance, the tone. As a violinist, I'm obviously aware of the way my colleagues in the orchestra are playing, but I pay the same attention to all of the sections, with their distinctive features and their collective drive.

N. S.-Z. : I'm impressed by its remarkable instrumental prowess and beautiful tone quality. These are the foundations that will underpin our shared music-making and the meaning we want to impart to the performance. It all begins with the first rehearsal: right from the outset, the group has to gel – and that's my responsibility. Rehearsing and then performing for an audience is an extremely serious and demanding job, but one that we must enjoy. There is joy is every detail of the score and this joy is infectious, spreading among the players and the audience. This joy, too, is my responsibility.

N. S.-Z. : That's the crux of the matter... and one of the best parts of my job! Each concert should have its own specific identity or flavour, while at the same time contributing to the overarching season – which, to be a success, needs to be more than just the sum of the successive concerts. In the course of our journey – because that will be the recurring theme throughout this season – there will be some of the regular landmarks, such as the major symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann or Mahler, as well as some lesser-known works the audience may not have heard before. And, just as each concert forms part of the whole season, each season is designed with an eye to the next one..

N. S.-Z. : I conduct Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy, whose genius cannot be likened to anything else. But, over the coming months, I would also like to introduce concert-goers to certain lesser-known French composers. Without wanting to minimise their distinctiveness, I'm struck by the connections between the music of Vincent d’Indy, Édouard Lalo, Albéric Magnard or Albert Rousse and the music of Central Europe. I think it would be interesting to highlight these relationships.

N. S.-Z. : An orchestra cannot be seen as a distinct, stand-alone unit. There are so many ways for people to spend their time and money these days, what with leisure, sport and travel, for instance. And, within the musical field, there are so many different styles, from baroque to rap, including opera, jazz and song. I think classical music is a life experience, packed with meaning, a philosophy. And an orchestra is a group that has the ability to federate a community around and alongside it. I sense that the City of Lyon is rightfully proud of the ONL and is entrusting it with a vital mission: that of going out to engage with new listeners, with enthusiasm and respect.

N. S.-Z. : First of all, I've made up my mind to learn French ! Lyon is a wonderful, bustling, lively city and I'm going to take advantage of my longer stays in the city to visit the museums, its distinctive districts, the squares and the riverbanks. And, although I'm often on the conductor's rostrum, I also like to be in the role of concert-goer. I like being in the audience: I find people receptive, welcoming and open-minded. Whether young or old, expert or novice, everyone feels at home and finds something that speaks to them at the Auditorium.

First season with the Orchestre national de Lyon

«La première chose que j’ai vue en atterrissant à Lyon, c’est le nom de Saint-Exupéry. Depuis lors, à chaque fois, je repense à cet homme célèbre non seulement pour sa place dans l’histoire, comme pionnier de l’aviation mondiale, mais aussi pour sa prose philosophique. "Le véritable voyage", écrit-il, "ce n’est pas de parcourir le désert ou de franchir de grandes distances sous-marines, c’est de parvenir en un point exceptionnel où la saveur de l’instant baigne tous les contours de la vie intérieure." Quelle manière poétique de nous convier à être là, dans l’instant présent !

«Parvenir en un point exceptionnel où la saveur de l’instant baigne tous les contours de la vie intérieure.» 

Le thème de notre première saison, Le Voyageur, est inspiré par Saint-Exupéry à de nombreux égards. Ce thème m’a également incité à retrouver mes racines – non seulement pour avoir parcouru des milliers de kilomètres comme musicien au cours des trente dernières années, mais également pour avoir grandi au contact de la musique d’Europe centrale et m’identifier fortement à elle. Dans ma jeunesse, j’ai vécu et étudié à Vienne pendant plus d’une décennie et, comme violoniste, j’ai toujours ressenti une affinité naturelle avec le répertoire germanique de Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann et Brahms. Et c’est mon amour pour Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner et Richard Strauss qui m’a poussé à devenir chef d’orchestre. Le programme de notre première saison puise à ces racines et chemine en musique à travers le XIXe siècle, parallèlement à mon propre parcours de musicien sillonnant l’Europe.

À l’exception notable de Bach, Mozart et quelques autres, le moment où la musique a vraiment commencé à explorer les "contours de la vie intérieure", c’est l’aube du XIXe siècle, en Europe centrale. Un formidable creuset de compositeurs s’y est formé, et de cette émulation a surgi ce qui se révélerait être un héritage extraordinaire. Beethoven a donné le signal d’un nouvel âge d’or des Lumières où la musique commençait à se faire ouvertement expression individuelle. De nombreux compositeurs ont suivi ses traces et, à mesure que le rythme du XIXe siècle s’accélérait, la révolution industrielle se mit en marche, apportant encore un surcroît d’énergie et d’invention, nous portant d’une seule traite jusqu’au seuil de Gustav Mahler.

Notre première saison explore ce voyage extraordinaire, et les routes respectives des artistes invités se croisent, elles aussi, à Lyon : de quoi former un kaléidoscope géographique dans lequel le thème du Voyageur se nourrit et se déploie avec éclat.

Je ne pouvais pas rêver meilleures circonstances pour ouvrir ce nouveau chapitre de ma vie musicale. L’Orchestre national de Lyon est installé dans une ville bouillonnante, qui offre un soutien entier et significatif à ses institutions culturelles – au sein desquelles l’orchestre constitue un joyau particulièrement précieux. C’est une phalange magnifique, dotée d’un son qui n’appartient qu’à elle et riche de musiciens fiers de leur héritage tout en ayant soif d’atteindre de nouveaux sommets.

J’ai hâte que la saison commence et que nous embarquions ensemble pour ce qui promet d’être un passionnant voyage musical. Un voyage où il ne sera pas nécessaire "de parcourir le désert ou de franchir de grandes distances sous-marines" car nous allons l’entreprendre chez nous, à Lyon, tous ensemble.»

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider
Directeur musical de l’Orchestre national de Lyon

Your concerts with Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

Biography

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider will become the seventh music director of the Orchestre national de Lyon (ONL) in September 2020: a landmark in a prominent international career that in recent years has seen the violinist also take on the role of conductor.

After an initial successful collaboration in the 2019/2020 season's opening concert and on a tour of the major Russian concert halls, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider will become the ONL's music director for the 2019/2020 season. This appointment consolidates a career as conductor that, in recent years, has steadily gained momentum. Over and above the close ties he has forged with the London Symphony Orchestra, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is now a regular guest of the world's most prestigious orchestras. Recent and forthcoming performances include concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Philharmonic Orchestras of Stockholm, Brussels and Oslo.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is also building a solid reputation in opera. After his brilliant debut conducting Die Zauberflöte at the Semperoper Dresden, he was immediately invited back to conduct Der Rosenkavalier in autumn 2019. In 2020/2021, he will make his debut at the Royal Danish Opera conducting a new production of Die Zauberflöte.

Recognised as one of the world's most accomplished violinists, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider maintains a busy performance schedule as soloist and recitalist. During the 2018/2019 season, he was artist-in-residence with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, either playing violin or conducting in a variety of projects, including his conducting debut at the Musikverein in Mahler's 1st Symphony. He plays a 1741 Guarneri del Gesù violin that once belonged to the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler, entrusted to him on a long-term loan from the Royal Danish Theatre, generously funded by the Velux Foundations, the Villum Foundation and the Knud Højgaards Foundation.