Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider became 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.
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 Roussel 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
“The first thing I saw when I landed in Lyon was the name Saint-Exupéry. Since then, every time, I think of the man who was famous not only for his role in history, as the pioneer of global aviation, but also for his philosophical prose. ‘Real travel,’ he wrote, ‘is not crossing the desert or covering great distances under water; it’s reaching a special point where all the shapes of your inner life are awash with the flavour of that instant.’ What a poetic way to urge us to be there, in the present moment!
The theme of our first season, The Traveller, is inspired by Saint-Exupéry in many ways. This theme also prompted me to find my own roots – not only because I had travelled thousands of kilometres as a musician over the past 30 years, but also because I grew up in contact with the music of Central Europe and I identify strongly with it. In my youth, I lived and studied in Vienna for over 10 years and, as a violinist, I always felt a natural affinity with the German repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. And it was my love of Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss that prompted me to become a conductor. Our first season’s programme draws on these roots and traces a musical path through the 19th century, parallel to my own path as a musician, travelling the length and breadth of Europe.
With the notable exception of Bach, Mozart and a few others, the moment when music really started to explore the ‘shape of inner life’ is at the dawn of the 19th century, in Central Europe. A tremendous melting pot of composers had formed there, and this emulation had yielded what would prove to be an extraordinary legacy. Beethoven had been the starting point of a new golden age, the Enlightenment, when music started openly to be individual expression. Many composers followed in his footsteps and, as the 19th century gathered pace, the Industrial Revolution rolled into action, bringing yet another burst of energy and invention, and carrying us, in one stretch, to the threshold of Gustav Mahler.
Our first season explores this extraordinary journey, and the respective routes of the guest artists also cross in Lyon, forming a geographical kaleidoscope in which the Traveller theme expands and unfolds in a burst of light.
I couldn’t hope for more propitious circumstances in which to open this fresh chapter of my musical life. The Orchestre national de Lyon has its home in a lively city that provides whole-hearted, significant support to its cultural institutions – among which the orchestra is a particularly precious gem. It is a magnificent orchestra, endowed with an unrivalled tone quality and musicians who are proud of their heritage yet eager to attain new heights.
I am eager for the season to start so that we can embark together on what promises to be an exciting musical journey. A journey on which we will not have to ‘cross deserts or travel long distances under water’, because we are going to take it at home in Lyon, all together.”
Music Director of the Orchestre national de Lyon
Your concerts with Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider
MOZART / SCHUMANN
RAVEL / SCHUMANN
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider / Bertrand Chamayou
BERTRAND CHAMAYOU / NIKOLAJ SZEPS-ZNAIDER
Musiciens de l’Orchestre national de Lyon
Musiciens de l’ONL
Symphonie n° 3
BRAHMS 1 / SCHUMANN 4
Sir András Schiff
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider / Nelson Freire
LA BELLE AU BOIS DORMANT
Lucas et Arthur Jussen
LA BELLE AU BOIS DORMANT
Lucas et Arthur Jussen
CHOPIN / SCHUMANN
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider / Marie-Ange Nguci
LE VAISSEAU FANTÔME
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider inaugurates his first season as Music Director of the Orchestre national de Lyon in September 2021. He conducted the Orchestra’s 19/20 season opening concerts and together they toured Russia in February 2020. Szeps-Znaider is a regular guest conductor of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Bamberg Symphony and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
Following an outstandingly successful debut conducting The Magic Flute at the Dresden Semperoper, Szeps-Znaider was immediately re-invited to conduct Der Rosenkavalier in Autumn 2019. This season he returns to Semperoper for a revival of Der Rosenkavalier and makes his debut at the Royal Danish Opera conducting a new production of The Magic Flute.
Also a virtuoso violinist, Szeps-Znaider maintains his reputation as one of the world’s leading exponents of the instrument with a busy calendar of concerto and recital engagements. During the 19/20 season he appeared as soloist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de France and Konzerthausorchester Berlin, and performed the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Rudolf Buchbinder in Vienna’s Musikverein.
Szeps-Znaider enjoys a strong relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra he has worked with extensively both as conductor and as soloist. Together they recently recorded the complete Mozart Violin Concertos, directed from the violin by Szeps-Znaider, with The Strad extolling his playing as “possibly among the most exquisite violin sound ever captured on disc”.
His extensive discography also includes the Nielsen Violin Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, the Elgar Concerto in B minor with Sir Colin Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle, award-winning recordings of the Brahms and Korngold concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 and Glazunov Concerto with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and the Mendelssohn Concerto on DVD with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Szeps-Znaider has also recorded the complete works of Brahms for violin and piano with Yefim Bronfman.
Szeps-Znaider is passionate about supporting the next generation of musical talent, and is President of the Nielsen Competition, which takes place every three years in Odense, Denmark. He plays the “Kreisler” Guarnerius “del Gesu” 1741 on extended loan to him by The Royal Danish Theater through the generosity of the VELUX Foundations, the Villum Fonden and the Knud Højgaard Foundation.