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RADIRO Festival: an Interview with Conductor Joshua Weilerstein

Thursday, 14 August 2014 , ora 14.20
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The young conductor, who will be opening RadiRo - the International Radio Orchestras Festival on 20th September, 2014, by conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, has had an intriguing career path. He studied the violin first, but he only decided for a music career when he was 15. He won both the First Prize and the Audience Prize at the Malko Competition for Young Directors, in Denmark, without having conducted a professional orchestra before. Since then, his CV has recorded new successes beside the most prestigious orchestras in the world. The exclusive interview below easily outlines a portrait of this young artist.

I imagine that opening RadiRo - the International Radio Orchestras Festival will also mean your first visit to Romania. What are your expectations regarding this experience?

Joshua Weilerstein: I am very glad that I will be in Romania for the first time. It is a country I have always wanted to go to. I am very curious to have a quick taste of Bucharest, I won't have much time, but I will get the most out of every spare moment. With regard to the concert, I can say that it's always a fantastic experience to reach a new audience, one I have never met before.

You often conduct the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. What can you tell about this ensemble, which characteristics should we pay attention to?

J.W.: They have a unique, unitary sound. 95% of the orchestra members are Finns. They know each other very well; they have played together for a long time, thus, creating a signature sound. This is not something usual in Central-European or American orchestras, where orchestra members come from all over the world. I believe that national identity is the foundation of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

In this context, what is your opinion on the balance between multiculturalism and national identity within an orchestra?

J.W.: In general, I think that an orchestra comprising members who come from different countries can offer a soul-enriching music experience. When artists bring their national experience to a new group and know how to integrate it, amazing results can be reached. I believe everyone is different in this respect. For example, in the case of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Viennese identity is very important. On the other hand, the Berlin Orchestra consists of many foreigners, but its sound is still typically German. So, I guess that multiculturalism can certainly offer a special music experience, but also come with new challenges.

Before devoting yourself to conducting, you studied the violin. You said that at first you were not particularly attracted to this instrument and that you were studying '25 minutes every day, five days a week and nine months a year'. How did your experience as a violinist help you in the conducting career? Is it possible that the violin developed in you certain qualities that other instruments would not have managed to identify?

J.W.: It's true that I have only started to take the study of the violin seriously when I was 15. I still study it. In a way, the study of this instrument helped me when it comes to the relationship with the strings department, which represents the largest part of an orchestra. Given my initial training, I know how to refine the sound, what dealing with the bow and interpreting a certain phrase mean.

If I had been a trumpeter, I might have known a lot more about brass winds, things that I might miss now. Of course, I am very glad to have studied the violin, but I don't know whether this helped me more than the study of another instrument would have, except the piano. If I had been a pianist, I would have possessed a great advantage. But even the violin helped me and continues to help me a lot.

I understand that there were two major events which helped you decide for a music career, for conducting to be more precise: a tour alongside the Youth Orchestra of the New England College and a DVD with Carlos Kleiber conducting works by Mozart and Brahms. What came after these two revelations? How did you approach conducting at the very beginning?

J.W.: I asked Ludovic Morloe, the conductor of the orchestra at the school I was attending and currently the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to give me some lessons. Then, I invited a few friends over and I asked them to rehearse Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 with me. It was an interesting experience that I really enjoyed. Moreover, whenever a conductor came to our college or was invited to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I asked for advice, to be told what my next steps should be…then, I applied for a conducting competition - the Malko Competition for Young Directors, in Denmark. I had never before conducted a professional orchestra. I had absolutely no expectations from this competition; however, I won. This prize was a remarkable leap.

Do you still remember what you felt when you were pronounced the winner of the competition?

J.W.: I could hardly realize what was happening to me…I was in shock, but I was very happy, of course. It took me completely by surprise. It was one of those experiences when you are the right person in the right place and you enjoy every moment of your success, without thinking of what will come next.

How did you actually prepare for this competition? If you had never conducted a professional orchestra before, it means that you focused more on the theoretical side; did you listen to many recordings?

J.W.: Indeed, I studied a lot of theory and I listened to many recordings. I also gathered my friends again and went through the competition programme with them; they were very generous with their time. Practically, in a single night, we rehearsed the entire repertory of the competition and they offered me lots of advice, they made many comments, they brought up their previous experiences with sundry conductors. Basically, I got all the advice I could get. Then I participated in the competition and I won.

What exactly impressed you about Kleiber's interpretation of the works by Mozart and Brahms on the DVD that changed your life?

J.W.: I think that what surprised me most was the way he managed to exert his influence on the interpretation of the orchestra, but at the same time, he encouraged them to perform as if it were chamber music. He encouraged them to communicate. He created an atmosphere where everybody was giving something to the person beside them. I had never before seen a conductor accomplish that. In fact, what bothered me about conducting initially was the idea that a conductor is a dictator who tells everyone what to do. This didn't appeal to me at all, but when I saw what Kleiber was able to accomplish, how he managed to connect all the musicians, it was a revelation.

Did the discoveries you made about conducting match what you had imagined before embarking on this career path?

J.W.: In some respects, yes, but in others, there were things I would have never expected. For example, I knew from the very beginning that conducting means working and communicating with people, both verbally and non-verbally. This is what helped me evolve: the fact that I realized that 90% of the whole process is related to the way you know how to communicate, to transmit a vibe, to radiate a certain type of energy.

What I did not know at first was all the details about how this industry works. It is a complicated piece of machinery that functions in a certain way.

What fascinates you most now, what exactly makes you want to continue this career?

J.W.: The opportunity to travel to places like Romania, places I would have probably never reached otherwise.

At the musical level, I find priceless the opportunity of working with people, of creating something together. When you are on the stage alongside 90 or 100 persons and you feel something unique being created, you experiment some unique sensations. This is my purpose, this is what fascinates me most currently.

Which is, in your opinion, the greatest challenge a young conductor can encounter?

J.W.: Sometimes, the orchestra members can be prejudiced against young conductors, seeing them as arrogant, overconfident and inflexible. However, what makes me happy is the fact that many of my generation tried and managed to change this perception. They collaborate much better with the orchestras and they even get to identify themselves with those. I believe this is the biggest challenge for all of us: to break open the barriers when it comes to such prejudices, which, unfortunately, are rather deep. It is also important to earn the respect of the musicians, without forcing them to do something. You obviously must have strong opinions, but what matters is how you express them. Many musicians have been part of that orchestra for 40-50 years and they have much more experience than I could have. You have to find the ideal manner in which to raise an issue and this is where, I believe, we have to return to psychology, trying to figure out how everything is supposed to work. I think this is the most difficult challenge.

While doing my research for this dialogue, I encountered an interview with your sister, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and she revealed that at a certain point you wanted to become a writer. Do you still write?

J.W.: Yes, I still write sometimes. To be more exact, I wanted to become a journalist, but then I decided to continue with the music career. Now, writing is more of a hobby. I haven't done it in a long time; you reminded me that I should start again. (laughs)

Do you have a favourite writer?

J.W.: Yes, of course; my favourite writer is Tolstoy. In what concerns poetry - because I also used to write poetry - I prefer E.E. Cummings. Of course, there are many more I like, but these two are the main ones. I am very attracted to Russian literature.

Do you think there are similarities between writing and creating the vision of a symphony, for example?

J.W.: I believe that the two processes share a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to working on their structure. When I begin the study of a symphony, I first look at how it is structured. It's important to know where it is all headed, and this is also important in literature, because you have to know what happens next. This is one of the things in common, but the emotional aspect is also an important factor.

I was wondering if it's easier to create something new in conducting as compared to literature. When it comes to conducting, there is already a material which can serve as a starting point…

J.W.: In a way, writing leaves more space to the imagination. Conductors are practically re-creators, which makes things a little bit more difficult.

However, only a few days ago, I listened to a recording with the Chamber Orchestra of the Bremen Philharmonic, conducted by Paavo Järvi. They interpreted a symphony by Brahms in a way I would have never imagined. Such revelations happen all the time and it's incredible to explore all the depths of music in order to discover everything it has to offer.

In Bucharest you will interpret works by Sibelius, Beethoven, Grieg and Richard Strauss. Was it you who proposed this programme?

J.W.: I wasn't alone in selecting this repertory. The organizers of the festival wanted the programme to comprise a work by Strauss; then, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra wanted to include a score by Sibelius. I came up with the idea of adding works by Grieg and Beethoven. Thus, this is a collective result and it manages to illustrate the connection between Scandinavian composers, such as Grieg and Sibelius, on the one hand, and on the other hand, German composers - Beethoven and Richard Strauss.

You conducted many of the most important orchestras in the world. What are the directions you would like to explore in the future? Is there a certain type of repertory that you would like to investigate - opera, for example?

J.W.: Opera is definitely a domain I would like to explore. However, for the time being, I am busy creating a symphony repertory, because this gives me constant opportunities for new discoveries. For example, in Bucharest I'll be conducting for the first time the symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss. It's very interesting and I'm looking forward to presenting our interpretation in Bucharest.

Would you like to tell us more about how you build your repertory? How do you decide which is the direction you want to go to? Maybe your decisions regarding the repertory are determined by the inclination towards a certain composer…

J.W.: In general, I like all composers, all periods. I like contemporary music, but also classical, romantic or baroque. Usually, at the beginning of each season I think about what I would like to delve in - four-five important works that I have never interpreted before. Using these as a starting point, I begin discussions with the orchestras which all have a set of works in their repertory. It's basically a negotiation that always gives you the opportunity of discovering the ideas of the people around you. But, in general, I choose works that I find interesting at the time and I hope that I will love them just as much in a year or a year and a half.

Don't you ever feel that there is not enough time to explore and delve into this infinite domain of orchestra scores?

J.W.: I certainly do. But I know that some day I will have the opportunity of studying and presenting all the works I want. For example, I wanted to conduct Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, but somehow this wish of mine has not materialized yet. I proposed the work to sundry orchestras, but they had either just interpreted it, or they wanted to interpret it under the baton of their chief conductor. It was a bit frustrating at the time, but I understood their point of view and I said to myself that I would be conducting this score in a few years' time. Maybe it's for the best, because I will be able to study it better until then. Sometimes it takes a little for things to happen, but I am a patient man.

And interpretations are like wine: the older, the better, aren't they?

J.W.: That's true. For instance, I presented Dvoűák's Symphony No. 9 on many occasions. And whenever it is on the programme, I feel as if I met an old friend again. I hope I will come to accomplish this with as many works as possible.

Which are the oldest friends? Do you have a special inclination towards a certain composer?

J.W.: At the moment I feel very close to Shostakovich's music, I am quite impressed and I enjoy studying his scores. But I have a wide range of interests. For example, whenever I listen to Mozart, I wonder how one can listen to anything else. His music is simply amazing. There is not a single composer who fascinates me; although it may sound like a cliché, my favourite composer is the one I study at that point.

Since you'll be presenting the symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss in Bucharest for the first time, could you reveal to us the most interesting discoveries occasioned by this score?

J.W.: It is an interesting work and it comprises a lot of nuances. You can hear every detail of the story in this music. Something that surprised me was the dynamics of the work. Many musicians will tell you that Richard Strauss's music is one of the densest possible. Sometimes, four or five things happen at the same time. When you respect the dynamics and faithfully render everything on the score, the result is a construction where every level is felt, the construction can be perceived as having three or four dimensions. This is great and I'm looking forward to working on these aspects together with the orchestra.

Which is, in your opinion, the most important thing that a young person aspiring to a career in conducting should know?

J.W.: It's important that they should be flexible and have perspective, but also balanced and strong opinions about what they want to do. They should also explore all the dimensions of working with people, because this is what we actually do. All this, needless to say, besides the study proper, which represents the foundation of the career. But beyond this, cultivating a good relationship between the orchestra and the conductor is very important.

More information regarding the International Radio Orchestras Festival-RadiRo - here.

Petra Gherasim
Translated by Mihaela Olinescu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, The University of Bucharest