DMM interview: Contemporary music should be the life blood of the concert hall and opera house

Contemporary music should be the life blood of the concert hall and opera house which are too often just mausoleums and homages to the past - says British conductor Kriss Russman, who at this year's "Days of Macedonian Music" will lead the closing concert of the 40th edition of the festival. Slovenian-American cellist Gal Faganel will appear as a soloist with the Philharmonic, while the programme features works by Macedonian composers Toma Proshev, Kiril Makedonski and Risto Avramovski, and the premiere of Michael Bakrnchev's new symphonic work. We had the opportunity to talk to maestro Russman, before his arrival in Skopje.

On April 13th 2017, you will be conducting the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra in the closing concert of “Days of Macedonian Music” festival. The programme comprises works by Macedonian composers Barknčev, Prošev, Makedonski and Avramovski, with Slovene cellist Gal Faganel performing as a soloist. Is this your first encounter with contemporary Macedonian music? Have you had any prior knowledge of Macedonian composers, styles and forms and some of the country’s ensembles?

Macedonian music is completely new to me, so it is incredibly exciting to be conducting this truly wonderful programme as well as collaborating with Gal for the first time. I have always been a champion of contemporary work. I made the first internationally distributed CD of orchestral music by the now popular Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks for the SONY label back in the 1990s when Pēteris was unknown to Western audiences.  The music I have commissioned includes a percussion concerto from the Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen for BBC Television’s Young Musician competition. I have premiered the music of John Simon in South Africa and the Austrian composer Richard Heller in Germany. Of course, I am also a composer, so performing new and contemporary work always has a fascination for me.  I am very much looking forward to working with the Macedonian Philharmonic for the first time and I will be returning next month to perform with the Macedonian National Opera.

Hundreds of new works have already been written for the orchestra since the beginning of the 21st century. The astonishing diversity of symphonic music in the past 15 years instills confidence that the orchestra is just as relevant as it has ever been. For nearly every composer alive today, writing for orchestra is an enormous task, yet a very rewarding one. How do you see 21st century’s orchestral music from both a conductor’s and a composer’s perspective?

The last twenty-five years has witnessed an enormous change and liberation in musical composition. I grew up during a very depressing time when the style of new music was incredibly restrictive and had very little appeal for audiences and musicians in Britain, or indeed Western Europe and America. So-called ‘modernism’ or the ‘avant-garde’, which was banned in the former Soviet Union, was ferociously promoted in the West as a kind of anti-Soviet cultural weapon during the Cold War to show that in a supposedly free and democratic society there were no limitations on musical style. But actually the limitations were huge. No publisher would take on a composer who created music with the slightest trace of traditionalism or melodic content. Two British BBC Radio producers illustrated the madness element of this period by inventing their own fictional composer, Piotr Zak. By randomly making percussive noises in a BBC studio, and creating a work called Mobile for Tape and Percussion, they fooled the British public, and some music critics, into believing that this composer actually existed. When I now describe this period to students, they look at me as if I am having a joke with them, but it really was a very strange and, I think, ultimately wasteful time musically and the work of many fine composers, both alive and dead, suffered as a consequence. Thankfully, we now live in a freer and richer artistic world.   

Your artistic portfolio and professional activity as a composer and conductor are really remarkable. As a conductor you have led London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Colonne in Paris, Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Augsburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Danish Philharmonic Orchestra, Athens Symphony Orchestra, Carlsbad Symphony Orchestra, Biel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland, Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway, St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Philharmonic, Xiamen Philharmonic... As a composer, you have completed George Buttersworth’s Orchestral Fantasia, written the opera Happy Birthday, Mr. President,  completed commissions for Finland’s Pori Sinfonietta, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra…How do you define the profile of a successful music artist of the 21st century? In what ways is being a composer an advantage to being a successful conductor?

I am not really sure what actually defines a ‘successful’ conductor. Certainly, an intimate knowledge and love of the music a conductor performs is essential to his or her art. It is also vital to establish a strong and productive relationship with the musicians you are conducting since they are the best judges of what you have to offer. Foremost, an orchestra needs someone who can allow, and enable, them to play their best. So a conductor has to have a personality, as well as a sensitivity and psychology, to communicate musically with a group of nearly 100 individuals, in a limited period of time, and that is always a challenge. Anything that helps a conductor do this job is valuable and, yes, I think that being a composer has its advantages because it brings you closer to the mechanics of how an orchestra works. As far as being a ‘successful’ conductor is concerned, I prefer to define success as being able to continually enjoy the process of making music with good musicians. Performing is such a huge privilege and, as long as I am able to spend a large part of my life doing this, I will always consider myself successful.  

Your performances regularly receive standing ovations and exceptional reviews that praise your ability to “communicate musical intention to the players in seemingly effortless fashion” (Cape Times), to create “a performance of deep concentration and achieve a wonderful sound” (Opera magazine) and to “lead the musicians to the highest of all heights” (Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung). Are you of the opinion that a successful conductor is not just about repertoire - a lot of it is attitude and being able to communicate to the ensemble?

Energy and passion in a performance are paramount and it is a conductor’s job to drive and focus that energy. Ideally, we should always try and play great music with such commitment and passion that it feels as if it could be the last performance of our lives. Sadly, this rarely happens, but it should nevertheless be a goal. Audiences are surprisingly perceptive and always know when they are witnessing something special or extraordinary.

Some musicians and critics share the opinion that contemporary concert format nowadays needs to become significantly more flexible in order to accommodate the myriad shapes of music and reach new audiences. It is believed that music has for too long been restricted to a single, almost universally duplicated format. What are your thoughts the modes of presentation of new music?

Contemporary music should be the life blood of the concert hall and opera houses which are too often just mausoleums and homages to the past. Anything that brings audiences closer to the music of their time should be welcomed. The public are far more curious than we think. They love to be given opportunities to learn more about the music they are experiencing through vocal introductions at concerts or even talks with musical illustrations at a piano. The performance of all new work should always be accompanied by composers explaining how their music is inspired or created in pre or post-concert events – at the very least.

Major financial problems have surfaced in recent years with some world orchestras and other music institutions. Do you think the current financial model for classical music is sustainable or needs changing?

The current financial model is not sustainable. I do not really fully understand the problem. The issues of sponsorship are clearly complex because big names who demand high fees naturally attract sponsors. On the other hand, the fees of the music directors of the major international orchestras are all consistently extremely high. When a conductor is sometimes receiving a fee for a concert that is the same as the fee for all the orchestral musicians put together, that cannot be necessary or ethically acceptable.

In the framework of the “Days of Macedonian Music”, you will be also giving a presentation and lecture at the Faculty of Music in Skopje. Could you tell us more about what the students could expect from this encounter with your music?

In 2014, I completed an unfinished orchestral work, Orchestral Fantasia, by the British composer George Butterworth who was killed in the 1st World War, aged 31 and at the height of his creative powers. All that exists is a full-score manuscript, in the composer’s hand, lasting just three-and-a-half minutes. There are no sketches, so we have no idea how Butterworth intended to complete the work. What he has composed is incredibly beautiful, so I thought it was worth trying to finish the piece as the composer might have intended so that Butterworth’s music could be finally heard for the first time since its composition 100 years ago in 1916. I have extended the work to nine minutes (roughly the same length as his other orchestral masterpieces) by developing Butterworth’s original material and making an in-depth study of his music. I wanted the completion of the Fantasia to be more than just an academic exercise; it also had to work well for the concert hall and make a strong impression on audiences. I recorded the Fantasia, conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, for BIS Records on a disc of Butterworth’s orchestral music which was released on the centenary of Butterworth’s death last year. In this talk, I will describe the problems I encountered and the decisions I made completing the Fantasia (with keyboard illustrations), and also play the recording. 

Teaching plays an important role in every musician’s professional activity. You have taught many master classes and seminars around the world. How do you think conducting, composition, and music in general, should be taught?

The principle role of a teacher is to inspire and fire enthusiasm for music in students and young professionals and try to help them with any problems they may be encountering. Young composers need to be guided to as much music as possible, so that they can eventually find their own voice. I am skeptical about teaching conducting, and even more so about conducting competitions (which I have never entered). A conductor can only learn the art by performing and the big problem is finding opportunities to do this. Winning a competition provides opportunities to conduct, but the age limit is always low and most of the entrants are young with little experience. If they win, they are often pushed quickly from one orchestra to another and can be traumatized by the sudden exposure and the huge amount of work involved in absorbing new scores. Of course, there are famous exceptions. But, ultimately, learning music is a very slow process, particularly in the opera house where intimate knowledge comes from years of conducting an opera many times. 

Many critics have discussed your recent recording of the orchestral music of George Butterworth with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The disc also received a 5-star review in the BBC Music Magazine and reached No. 1 in the official British Classical Music Chart. What is your own feeling on the place of this recording in the historical mix?

It is the first single disc of all Butterworth’s orchestral music and it stayed in the Classical Music Chart top 10 for four months, which both pleased and surprised the record company. The disc obviously captured the imagination of the public during the 1st World War and Battle of the Somme (where Butterworth was tragically killed) commemorations, not only in Britain but also in Germany, France, Australia, Canada and the United States. BIS never delete any of the discs in their catalogue, so I hope the CD will continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.

It is a difficult thing to ask a musician, or an artist to reflect on their own art, but how you might explain the qualities you possess as a conductor?

I think that someone else should answer this question. I hope that my passion for music is evident whenever I conduct an orchestra. I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja if he had any favourite conductors. He replied, ‘You know, I don’t care who I work with, as long as they really love the music. That is all that matters.

Dojrana Prokopieva