«When angels attend»


Interview with Kaspar in the 04/2006 issue of the Czech music magazine «Harmonie».

The thirty-six year old chief conductor of the Prague Philharmonia, Kaspar Zehnder, is a member of the management of the Paul Klee Centre in Berne and the Murten Classic Music Festival and he has also maintained contact with his one-time place of work, the Rumanian city of Sibiu which will be the European City of Culture in 2007. His goals for Prague include invoking a general contemporary discussion about music, discovering new areas in the repertoire of his orchestra and maintaining a stable financial base for the ensemble. He wants to conduct not only subscriber concerts, but also some exceptional and special performances. In Switzerland, he is spoken of as a Czech music maniac. But he will, of course, also perform Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, European spiritual music, the music of the twentieth century in general (especially Czech and French music), operettas and jazz and also Greek, Armenian, Gipsy, Rumanian, Sardinian and Arabic music. And his plans include everything possible – even taking music to people in supermarkets.


You have been in Prague frequently since the autumn, despite the fact that you only conducted here again in mid-January (Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Frank Martin). What have you been doing during these visits? 

Of course, we had to plan and prepare a number of things earlier, but otherwise it is not surprising that I have been here several times since October: once for the recruitment of new musicians and at other times so that I could prepare a tour of Spain … We also worked on a number of administrative matters. Working with the orchestra office is just as important as working with the orchestra. It is an excellent team and we work well together in real friendship. I have also slightly analysed what we will have to do and what directions we should head in – both in general and in detail. When I was in Prague in December, we discussed the coming season and the long-term prospects and goals. And I need to literally create a second home in Prague, so that I can bring my wife or friends here from Switzerland.

What specific ideas do you have for next season?

I think that I would prefer to speak about more general matters than about the specific works which we should or would like to play. From an entirely pragmatic point of view, the Prague Philharmonia is an exceptional orchestra which is able to take different paths to those of large philharmonic orchestras. I therefore think that the ensemble may also enter the sphere of the alternative market – that means that there may also be new types of concert venues: for example, we could consider playing in supermarkets where people go to spend their weekends.

And what about the repertoire?

We are thinking about holding a ball in the Viennese style with a gala concert at the beginning and then several smaller orchestras playing light, undemanding music in an elegant style for dancing. I am also thinking about performing programs dedicated to a single musically interesting country. This could be, for example, Armenia, the area of Southern Spain with its Arabic world, Greece or Sardinia... Not only one concert, but also an entire weekend. For example, in the case of Greece there are several important composers of the twentieth century, leading personalities in the world of contemporary music, whom we could present in this way. Even if we may then discover that some of them do not have their roots in Greece, but in Paris ...

What do you consider to be of great importance?

To address people who have not been specially educated in this field, to show them that it can be interesting to go to a concert, because there is something going on there and to give them a wider context and inspiration. Speaking of Greece, they also have an extremely broad sphere of folk music. By the way, it was Theodorakis who brought these traditions to classical concert halls. As such, I would like to cooperate with authors who are much more directly associated with folk music. In the case of Nikos Kazantzakis, probably the most significant Greek writer, it could be possible to build a bridge to Czech culture – if we take the opera of the Greek Passions by Martinu ... It would probably also be possible to cooperate with companies providing refreshments and catering and with the Greek community here... But I am merely thinking aloud in order to show the road our future activities and offers may take. The project has not been thought through or closed.

It is possible in this way to consider the most diverse topics, to combine them...

Yes, I have also recently discovered Nordic music for myself, things which I had not heard of and did not know - Nielsen, Sibelius, a Swedish impressionist Hugo Alfven who is as unknown here as back home. In any case, I would like our programs to make sense. The time will come when people will be too tired to go to a concert and merely listen to the traditional line-up: an overture, a concerto and a symphony. We are fortunate and very happy that people in Prague still attend such programs. But, for example, in Switzerland, if you do not think up a truly special and unique event, a special topic, then the concert halls are empty! That may also become the case here – and we must be ready for it. We are a young orchestra and not that big, so we must be flexible and use this for the creation of something new. The orchestra and the management are open to such things. I am convinced that our orchestra will cease being interesting, if it does not have any interesting projects.

In what detail do you follow contemporary Czech music?

Modern Czech music probably interests me more than Czech music in general, than early Czech music. It is a fact that the classic Czech composers Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček and Martinu did not create much for a chamber philharmonia. So they cannot really be our message to the world. I think that our message could be the classical repertoire, exceptionally well played, and on top of that the Czech music of the twentieth century. One of my goals is for precisely such a repertoire to be preferentially associated with the Prague Philharmonia, so that we become its “ambassadors”. I intend to dedicate time to meeting the relevant people. For example, I frequently speak with Marek Kopelent about the avant-garde in the Czech Republic. I have known him since the beginning of the 1980s when I studied in Berne and I will conduct his work Il canto deli augei for coloratura soprano and chamber orchestra at the Prague Spring. I would like to meet, for example, Vladimír Franz. I like such slightly exotic people. It takes a little courage, but I think that it should be normal to discover these worlds.

Have you already had similar experiences?

Yes. I like to experiment. I was the chief conductor of the orchestra in Sibiu, Rumania. It was “nowhere”, right in the middle. And I was able to organise several exceptional events which functioned very well. I am happy that Sibiu will be the European City of Culture in 2007, partly thanks to these events. We always had full houses. Once, in 2004, we undertook the first Rumanian performance of Rusalka. It was on a lake, in the open air, using extensive technology and lights. The orchestra was on the water and the singers were between the orchestra and the audience which sat on the bank. Nothing else was necessary and it all worked wonderfully. And it was even easy to find sponsors, despite the fact that this is usually ten times more difficult in Rumania than in the Czech Republic. That encouraged me a lot.

Was last year’s opening of the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne a similar experience?

Definitely. Thanks to incredible gifts of sponsorship, it was possible to establish an entire cultural centre around the collections. Not only a museum, but also a research centre, a children’s museum and a concert hall. I am responsible for the music. I literally started with a blank page, but I feel that something has gradually been created which is truly of interest to people. And this exclusively involves contemporary music! We have, for example, four hundred scores which have arisen upon the basis of the creative works of Paul Klee. And when working with actors or painters, it has been possible to emphasise what I consider to be important, i.e. that music is not an elitist matter.

Are you in favour of genre overlaps?

I have never felt that the connection of classical music with other types of music (with jazz and so on) could function ideally. But classical music and dance, for example, or classical music and literature, that is good – there are a lot of possible ideas and interesting things for people.

What about the Prague concerts for children? Will you want to change them?


When I arrived last year, my first question was “Which cycles work the best?” They told me the “A subscriber series” and the concerts for parents and children. I definitely do not intend to destroy something which works and which suits the audiences. I have some ideas about how to do the children’s concerts a little bit differently. I will conduct my first one in a week, so I do not want to say anything fundamental at the moment. Nevertheless, we must also take an interest in adolescents. After all, it is easier to captivate younger audiences...

You come from outside, that must be an advantage.

Being charismatic is not only a matter of where you are from...! Maybe the project in the supermarket, for example, could be something like that. But charismatic individuals are necessary for this. Who will they be? I don’t know yet. It is a matter of long searches, a lot of work. I saw a film of how young people went to try out for the Berlin Philharmonic. Simon Rattle said only a few words to them and then they played ... And seeing how those children were totally caught up in it ... it still gives me goose bumps.

How deeply are you identified with Swiss music?

From a financial point of view, I am supported by the Swiss government, if I take Swiss composers abroad. With the exception of Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger, who don’t need this support. In my opinion, Frank Martin is one of the most eminent authors of the 20th century. His music is close to my heart. He also had a similar foundation in a protestant environment, as I did. His music is not about emotions, but about expressionism. It reminds me of woodcuts. All thoughtfully, carefully and clearly worked – and at the same time there is a dimension from Mahler’s symphonies. Switzerland is small, the cantons are small, the towns are small, we have nothing large... only the mountains which limit the horizon. It sometimes seems to me that if we are to identify with Switzerland, we have to leave and break out of our cultural prison.


Switzerland is very materialistic, very small. We have the desire to flee, to leave for the large cities. We also have a number of remarkable aspects – for example our high number of suicides. In Africa, where this number is the lowest, it is possible to clearly see that happiness has nothing to do with money and wealth. It is a matter of mentality.

What do you have up your sleeve as well as the music of Frank Martin?

Other Swiss works. I will also look for a connection between Haydn and modern music and so on. I wish to provoke questions with our concerts. The answers are not so important. The important thing is that there are questions in the air. I don’t think, however, that I will ever concentrate too much on a single school. I think that this is precisely the advantage of Switzerland. We do Verdi better than the Germans, Brahms better than the Italians, we have quite a good feeling for Viennese waltzes and for French impressionism. But we do not have our own culture. This is moreover the reason why I am not a specialist I am anything. My main specialisation to date has been Czech music.


Is Prague the big world, the large city, the destination of your escape?

Yes, even though it is not as large as Berlin or Paris. I studied at the European Mozart Academy which was in Poland. I met a number of Central European musicians (including from the Czech Republic or from Rumania) there. And that was the start of my Eastern European story. The time in Rumania was important for me both from the point of view of the work and from a personal point of view, because that is where I met my wife. In my opinion, Prague is – together with Budapest and maybe Krakow – the pital city of Eastern Europe. When I spoke of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, I didn’t mean the Ukraine or Russia, but the Czech Republic. Prague is the best connection between the East and the West. Even during communist times, Prague was considered to be a metropolis, a cultural metropolis and a real cultural and musical centre from the Western point of view. And not only in Mozart’s day. When I say today in Switzerland that I have become the chief conductor in Prague, people say appreciatively, “Wow! That’s better than Basel, better than Zurich.” From a cultural point of view, Prague is probably just as important as Paris or London. I am understandably proud of that, it is a giant step for me.


And what will you do after Prague?

I am in my first year here, I want to be here and to work here as well as possible – and at the moment I do not have any other greater goal. I don’t rule out the fact that this may change, but at the moment I really cannot say that I want to do this or that after Prague – to go to New York and so on. As a Swiss, the important thing for me was to cross my country’s border.


Will you be involved in the Mozart celebrations?

That can’t be avoided. Mozart is the master composer for me. I read somewhere that he was too good for this world. For me, he is without doubt the greatest composer, as far as opera and piano concertos are concerned. If we evaluate him according to his symphonies or chamber music, however, Haydn and Beethoven are his equal. Mozart certainly deserves to have his two hundred and fiftieth anniversary celebrated. Personally, however, I will be concentrating more on Schumann and Shostakovich this year and maybe also on Joseph Martin Kraus. He was born in 1756 like Mozart and he died a year after him in 1792. He is counted as a Swedish composer, but in reality he was Viennese. He was followed by scandals in Sweden and he is not at all known today. It appeals to me to be able to offer an alternative to the Mozart jubilee: in Prague, in Berne and in Murten. And I will also give space to the reactions of other composers to Mozart.


What do you think of the commercial side of the jubilee?

I hate tourist events and occasions which only aim at making money. I am not generally against concerts where Mozart’s requiem continues to be played. The main thing is, however, that it is played well. This must therefore be about the music and about quality, but not about profits. It is the same with Vivaldi in Venice. Or in Paris where you can hear twenty-nine different Stabat mater by Pergolesi every evening.


You also have Mozart in your program for the Prague Spring. How did you come about your concept for the evening performance?

I will conduct Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, one of his best known and most dark works. They asked what else we could put with it. Maybe they were thinking of a similar piece. But my idea was to make the second half of the concert something of a contrast. The pieces by Bizet and Kopelent are light, clear and bright. We held long discussions about it with the Prague Spring, but in the end they agreed – and I hope they also like it.


It is sometimes said that the advantage of Czech orchestras is that there are only Czechs in them who have had similar schooling which maintains the traditions of the sound...

I don’t pay much attention to that. Yes, the Czech Philharmonia, Czech music ... Dvořák conducted this orchestra himself... That brings a great deal of emotion with it.


Should this be changed?

I don’t want to change anybody. The approach of the Prague Philharmonia to interpretation is maybe more international, maybe less “Czech”, maybe it is associated with the representation of the younger generation in the ensemble. Yes, the majority of our musicians are of Czech origin. They belong to the first generation of performers after the period of communism. They have, however, all completed various master classes – after all it has been possible to travel abroad since 1990. I personally like individuality and I do not think that everything should sound the same. Nor do I think that our orchestra should necessarily sound typically Czech. I am not a musicologist, a critic or a music producer. So I am not so interested in how much vibrato somebody uses or how they should be tuned. The main thing is that the music is done well and at a high quality.


And if they don’t succeed?

When somebody plays Mozart on autopilot, like a machine, that disturbs me, but not because of the vibrato or anything else, but because that person is, in the medical sense of the term, a musical idiot. So the first thing is to have good musicians. And I have them. And with a smaller orchestra, it is possible to get closer to the essence of the style than with a big one.


How do you define “good music”?

It is the coming together of a good composer, a good conductor, a good orchestra, a good hall, a good audience and a good moment. And that happens only rarely. We are always waiting for it. Probably the most important thing is the moment. When that happens, we say “ ...and suddenly there was an angel in the hall.” It happened for me during Rusalka in Sibiu. It was the last performance of an open-air project. It was raining and we had had to improvise in bringing the whole production to a military sports-hall. We barely managed everything. But then came the beginning, there were lots of people, television ... The orchestra started and all around me was just sound – I was so exceptionally happy! - and the moment came when you get goose bumps. I hope that I will also experience it in Prague. Many times.


Kaspar Zehnder, originally a flautist, began his conducting career as the assistant to Charles Dutoit at the Parisian Orchestre National de France, while at the same time working as the music coordinator for the European Mozart Academy. He was the Artistic Director at the Musical Academy in Berne and is the Artistic Director of the Murten Classics Festival, the main guest conductor of the Sibiu Philharmonia and the Music Director at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne. He regularly cooperates with orchestras from Moscow, Bratislava, Krakow, Berne, Lausanne and other cities and he is also involved in opera. He conducted the Prague Philharmonia for the first time in 2001.


Petr Veber, Harmonie