When did you discover music for yourself?


Interview with Kaspar for the magazine of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées


When did you discover music for yourself? Why did you want to become a conductor in particular?

As the fifth child in a musical family – my mother sang and my father, a rural doctor, was a very good violinist who played chamber music regularly – I discovered the beauty of music at a very early age and in particular the beauty of musical harmony. As far as conducting is concerned, that dates from my first visit to the opera in Berne; it was a performance of the Magic Flute. Even in normal life, I felt myself to be somewhat of a leader and as a child I wanted to be a captain or an engine driver and conducting is just a small step from that.

Do you remember your first conducting performance?

Of course; it was a concert at a church in Riggisberg, where I come from, with a chamber orchestra made up of my schoolmates from grammar school. We played the Pergolesi Stabat mater. I was naïve then and I didn’t have any idea as to how difficult and delicate this unique work really is.

Has your conducting style changed since your beginnings?

I have only had one real conducting teacher, so the way I set the beat has essentially remained the same. However, my conducting technique has certainly changed thanks to practical experience, but also thanks to a lot of opportunities to compare other conductors both from the outside and from the inside as an orchestral player.

You are also a flautist. Is it a good thing when a conductor can also play an instrument?

It is mainly good to know how difficult it is to really play any instrument well. This increases your respect for the musicians and such a conductor has a better idea of what a player’s performance entails. The conductor is something like a captain who must first experience being a sailor, a helmsman and a ship’s officer. He must learn to lead and recognise the crew’s psychology. It is a long journey and I still have far to go. It is necessary to start the journey afresh with each new orchestra. So to answer your question: only a good musician can be a good conductor.

How do you work with the score before a concert?

I go through it several times directly before a concert. It is as if I can hear the music, but with the difference that, when I am reading it, I can reduce the score down to the details, separate the individual parts from one another and thus decode the structure. But this is the last step, something like “looking for inspiration before the concert”. I have to do the rest before the first rehearsal; that means reading and reading again, I make lots of notes, I mark the sections which should be played forte and piano and the main and the secondary parts and I define the individual groups which formulate the musical idea in their mutual harmony.

When you conduct, you have visual contact with the orchestra and at the same time you are reading the score. Can you explain how these two things work together?

I almost never conduct from memory, because the score inspires me during the concert. Naturally, I have to know it very well and it is enough for me just to glance at each page. A simple glance gives me the overview I need. Visual contact with the musicians is very important for me, even though I do not expect that everybody will look me in the eye, because they have to follow the music. The most important thing in that tangle of contacts is the inward view and the concentration on the music which is currently being created.

Which conductors have influenced you the most?

Every concert is inspiring and has an effect, either in a positive or negative sense. My teacher, Ewald Körner, definitely influenced me, he introduced me to the craft and he passed on to me the enthusiasm, with which he drew timbres and rhythms from the score. Then Bruno Walter and Rafael Kubelík with their clean, refined, witty, but uncontrived performances. Claudio Abbado with his permanent search for the absolute and the divine in music. Bernard Haitink with how he went his way without demonstration and showiness and kept his place at the top for sixty years. Simon Rattle with the freshness of his ideas and his ability to communicate.

Do you have a favourite repertoire? Which music do you like apart from classical music?

As a Swiss, I have the advantage that I am more Italian than the Germans, more Viennese than the Parisians, more French than the Russians and more Slav than the English. And the disadvantage that I do not have any special cultural identity (except perhaps for the one which exists in Swiss chocolate or in cuckoo clocks...). All Swiss artists have had to find their own way abroad. I have travelled through many European countries, I have looked for traces in their folk music and I have looked for the core of their cultures in order to find where our culture is rooted. The combination of folk and artistic music is best expressed in the works of Leoš Janáček, Béla Bartók and Georg Enescu. Other composers who are dear to me include Karol Szymanowski, Carl Nielsen, Bohuslav Martinů and Albert Roussel. And what I am most interested in is everything at the same time.

Can you tell us something about the connections in today’s program?


As this is an autumn concert, I wanted to pit light and dark against each other. This contrast is excellently expressed in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. The first movement begins very darkly, almost mystically, and it leads into a melancholy romance. It is followed by a dramatic scherzo with a lavishly romantic trio, which smoothly merges into the finale. Radiance and joy gush from the last movement, almost as in a light Italian opera. There are two versions of this symphony and today we will play the original version from 1841, which is exceptional for the fact that it only lasts twenty three minutes. The movements are played in a single stream which underlines the program concept and supports the pattern of moods.

The first work of the evening is from the same period and area: Mendelssohn’s overture to the Tale of the Fair Melusina. This is the story of a small mermaid, a water nymph, who falls in love with a prince, because of whom she becomes dumb and is then only able to return to her world, if she kills her beloved with a final kiss and thus destroys her own love and life. 

At the centre of the program lies the dreamy, magical aspect of life from the point of view of two composers of the first half of the 20th century. The works are Bohuslav Martinů’s Magic Nights and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Martinů’s musical language, which is reminiscent of spring, was influenced by impressionism,  which brings it close to that of Roussel or Ravel, whereas Strauss was treading the last journey of earthly being; Hermann Hesse’s “Spring” is immediately followed by “September”, the song “Going to Sleep” precedes Eichendorff’s “At Sunset” and “Death” has the last word. Hesse is moreover a contemporary of both the composers, Strauss and Martinů, as is Eichendorff of Schumann and Mendelssohn.

What are you interested in apart from music?

Mainly my family. My wife is a flautist, she comes from Rumania. We have a small son. His name is Marius Leonard and he is my best friend. Then I like literature, ancient and modern languages, history, art, architecture, geography and nature. I like to go hiking or to ride a bicycle, I am a passionate skier and I follow politics and the football results daily.

What are your personal plans for the near future?

I will lead an orchestral week at the conservatoires in Pau and Tarbes in France, I will return to the Orchestre National de Montpellier, I will conduct the Orchestre National d’Ile de France and in between there will be a New Year’s concert in Lucerne and a Swiss concert tour with the Biel Symphony Orchestra. I am looking forward to a project with Magdalena Kožená. I have increasing numbers of operatic opportunities in my diary up to 2011 and I will also have performances with my Ensemble Paul Klee.


Émilie Tachdjian, à l'ecoute