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15 Questions to Leonard Elschenbroich

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m OK. In Munich in a small flat which my aunt has here and never uses.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I’m about to play Schumann Concerto in the Herkulessaal. Rehearsals are going well. Then I'll head for London to play with Nicola Benedetti in the Menuhin Memorial Hall. It’s at the Yehudi Menuhin School which we both went to for 3 years. Very scary…

What is your earliest musical memory?
My earliest intense musical memory was hearing the first C-major scale of Bach’s 3rd Cello Suite and feeling a sort of pain under my stomach and I was tearing. Not crying but 'tearing'. I asked my mother if something was wrong with me and she decided I should have Cello lessons. I was six years old I think.

Was there a deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?
No. I remember in my first term at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I was eleven, asking another a kid at lunch if they wanted to actually become a Cellist professionally. He was appalled and asked me what the hell I thought he was doing at that school! And then I asked myself what I was doing at the school and I realized it was so natural to me that it was never a dream and never a decision. Just like breathing, I never noticed it.

How satisfied are you with life as an artist?
I couldn’t imagine not being an artist. Not because I don’t know what it’s like (my sister is an investment banker and my parents are writers) but because I find it such a rich and fulfilling life. In the past years I have been fortunate to meet some of the greatest musicians alive and the contact with them, growing up with guidance in a musical micro-world and a view of the whole world through a musical looking glass is the only way I want to live.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
A good live performance is one that makes a difference. One that changes something in the people it reaches and with that changes something cosmically through the creative process of turning a personal and intimate experience out on itself, and through the abstraction of music into something general and public. Something that rings in many perceiving minds simultaneously and through the diverse individualities of them creates a consonance in harmony and in liberty. This is one kind of great performance.

How do you balance your personal emotions and the intentions of the composer in your interpretations?
I think in no other art form is the interpretative element as creative as in classical music. Maybe in Theatre but I don’t know anything about that. Music really doesn’t “exist” at all without us, and our subjectivity and personal relation is the only way to make it sound. We don’t just interpret but also co-create. I try to study scores very carefully and try to understand relations in form, tempo, harmony, finding that very often “tradition” has shifted them out of proportion in aid of short term “immediate” effect. I find that once I have done that work carefully (if I am spoilt with having enough time) and found the frame, “my frame”, then I hardly use the scores anymore when I practise and I sort of take the boat that I built on a journey. And especially on stage the journey gets interesting.

In which way would you say is your cultural background reflected in your performances?
What is my cultural background? My mother is German, she grew up in Dresden during the bombing in ‘44/’45, her grandmother survived Theresienstadt. Her father was a Pianist and Composer, she is a Writer and Sociologist. My father is Italian, his parents were apple farmers and he moved to Germany in the 70’s. He’s a writer, too, and a documentary filmmaker. Both work at home and always have done. I hope that the intellectual and cultural wealth that surrounded me while growing up has enriched me and my playing, but I don’t think that I have a German or Italian or Jewish heritage in my playing. Perhaps 19th century German culture is what I feel the closest link with. Certainly not present Germany though and even less present Italy.

How would you describe and rate the scene for classical music of the country you are currently living in?
I live in Vienna and London and they are both great. Both are a little isolated and both are very stuck up, but of course on the highest level worldwide. In Vienna music has a much more important role for the city itself of course. There is no other capital in the world whose greatest cultural pride is in classical music. But to be fair, London simply has so much else to cast a shadow over music! Vienna doesn’t. But that does make you feel very honoured over there. I was on the tram to the Musikverein and there was a Violinist with a Vienna Philharmonic sticker on his case. A lady pointed at him and whispered to her three year old: “Look, ein Philharmoniker!”

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?
It’s difficult. Classic music is basically “slower” than the pace of our time in this century. That’s the real problem. Of course there will have to be innovative programming, concert halls that are less stuffy and less intimidating, concert clothes and advertisement and a public image that fits our time, and all that is changing and is going to be fine. But the basic conflict of pace is a really tough one.

One thing I do is to meet school children before concerts. Almost every time I play a concerto, I talk to a group of children and play for them and let them play my Cello a little. Breaking down the barriers and accustoming children with the material is the foundation. But I really believe that children need to be taught to listen. It was the hardest thing for me when I was little, going to concerts several times a week with my mother. I don’t think I enjoyed it but I learnt intuitively to treasure the patience of listening to a concert. A concert which is not like a movie or a show, which is not “entertaining”, and which requires a commitment and effort, but which is important because “otherwise why would all these people be here?” Children should be made to listen to 30 minutes of great music a day! And artists should play concerts for them in their schools more.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for you personally?
As in all parts of life and culture the internet is inevitable. It’s the most powerful tool of promotion and advertisement. Classical music understands this and if it wants to have a chance in the future must be up to date with it. However!: The internet and the entire virtual culture are for the most part highly un-artistic. They contradict the most vital qualities of art and again there is the problem of pace. The quick, superficial “one-click/one-clip” attitude that internet use encourages is so far removed from the timeless, time-stretching, breadth of classical music that they are extremely difficult to combine.

I spent six months designing my website and was very involved in every step and I was constantly confronted with the impossible paradox of the history of music and the future of technology. The multi-tasking parallelisms of so much information (with so little depth) make it so hard for music to compete, having far less events per unit of time, but with so much depth. How many “pop-ups” would you get during one Bruckner Symphony? Another thing is that the visual dominance makes it even harder still and this is emblematic of modern culture altogether. The eye is so quick to judge and to dismiss, compared to the ear. Music imposes a length of time, which people (presumably) have less and less of. Ringtones are like little icons, little pictures, they actually don’t have any unit of time. And in popular music now, there is no development within the music. It’s all there at once and that’s it. Like one piece of candy. It doesn’t require time. Music is like a tea ceremony in comparison. Candy is of course more accessible and also so superficial.                                               

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I would have a subscription series to introduce young musicians in which, for recitals, you would have one famous artist play a 30 minute half and after the interval an upcoming artist would play a 45 Minute half. Audiences love to discover new artists. They just don’t like to go to concerts of and buy tickets of artists they don’t know. But once you’ve bated them to be in the hall they love it! You would of course need to pay these headline artists their regular fee which would leave very little for the young artist but it would be excellent exposure for them and would make the venue very exciting. For orchestral concerts I would push for one third of the Soloists in a subscription series to be up and coming artists. Apart form that I think most venues are doing a very good job in programming so I would have nothing to improve.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
I am lately less concerned with the actual state of the instrument than I used to be. I play the “Leonard Rose” Goffriller and I am very happy with it. Of course there are always things that seemed better at one point in one hall somewhere and especially before recordings and important concerts suddenly the Cello seems to have problems but now I learnt to remind myself how irrelevant such technical details are for any listener, including myself when I go to concerts.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
I play the Piano a little to study pieces but I’m not very good at all. I have good octaves. But I’m not good at polyphony which is kind of a drag for a Pianist.

Picture by Felix Broede

Leonard Elschenbroich

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