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Interview with Alban Gerhardt

img  Tobias

Your father was a Violinist with the Berlin Phil. What do you still remember from his stories about work?
My father retired end of August, but we don't really talk that much about music, rather about sports and educational issues - most of his stories I heard when he was telling them members of the German Youth Orchestra when I played there 20 years ago.

What was it about his job that made it seem like something you would want to do yourself?
I didn't care much about his job - I just always loved music, loved going to concerts, listening to the radio and recordings; I didn't see it as a job at all, more, as cheesy as it sounds, a vocation.

You mentioned you first wanted to become a conductor yourself. So how did that idea get discarded in favour of the Cello?

I don't actually remember that I wanted to become a conductor at first did I say this somewhere?

Yes, in an interview for German television ...

Well, what I know is that for the longest time I did things a conductor-to-be would be doing: I was playing the piano very well, accompanying tons of people: My father's violin class, my mother who was a singer, my siblings etc, reading through many operatic piano reductions, singing along while playing them, going to orchestra concerts with the scores and obviously playing an orchestra instrument, and that all before the age of ten. The question is rather: Why didn't I want to become a conductor, as this has never occurred to me as a possibility, and the answer is rather easy: My father didn't talk too highly about his boss, and why would I want to become somebody who is disliked by most of the musicians...

You once stated that your father wanted you to become an independent person. Still, you somehow came full circle as your debut was also with the Berlin Philharmonics. Was it nonetheless important for you to've been able to take this decision and make this step on your own terms?

My debut was not with the Berlin Philharmonic - or rather I did play my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic early on in my career, about 2 years after playing the first public concerts, but my first (paid) concert as soloist with orchestra was January 1989 with the Mozarteum Salzburg, playing both cello and piano. Yes, my father wanted me to be an independent person, and he succeeded, because I took most decisions on my own. I asked him for advice but hardly ever followed it :)

In which way was the fact that your sister is also a professional musician important for your development as an artist and in terms of being able to offer each other support in possible difficult times?

Three of my four siblings are musicians, but we never had to offer each other support in musical ways. We love each other and are close, but music is not really a subject in our conversations.

I was under the impression from reading your blog that one of the less pleasant aspects of being an artist to you is solitude. You'll often hear instrumentalists consoling themselves with the fact that „there is always the music“. But can music ever be an adequate substitute for human contact?
Oh, that can be less pleasant but also very nice - I always have been a loner and love being alone, but after concerts it's nice to hang out with other musicians and share a beer and some food. 90% of the times I prefer  being alone, yes, but after concerts it's nice to have human company. Music can't substitute human contact, but yes, to me music feels actually more natural than the world around me - more genuine, no facade.

Another issue seems to be the question of tackling extremely demanding works. You've commented on this with regards to the Unsuk Chin Cello-Concerto, with you saying: „It's not possible to play it at the indicated speed“ and her replying: „It is“. Whose judgement do you trust in situations like that?

I always trust my judgement, but I am always open to rethinking my positions and change them more often than my underwear. I can be extremely stubborn, but if somebody convinces me of something, I have no problem giving up my point of view; I am fully aware that learning never stops, and that with patience one can solve even impossible difficulties.


What does the process of preparing for such a piece looks like for you? Helene Grimaud, for example, has commented on how important it is for her to go through the piece in her head to get in tune with it – rather than emphasising the point of mechanical repetition. How is that for you?
It's lovely to go through a piece in your head, I do this all the time. It also sounds very impressive for people who are not musicians, makes us look good to say that, but at the end of the day we all - including Mrs.Grimaud - have to sit many hours at the instrument to technically learn the piece. Later on it is an option for memory purposes and to collect musical ideas to work the piece either just with the music or all by heart without the instrument, but the core work is on the instrument.

When, as with Unsuk Chin, a composer is still available for feedback, how much do you make use of the opportunity to ask questions?

Not at all, not a single question - as a musician I have the responsability to make pieces work by reading the music and between the lines, trying to make sense of it as the composer used to have it in his head. I made the experience that many composers, after they composed a piece, after they wrote down what they had in their head, don't have the piece in their head anymore, they don't own it anymore. It is now on paper, and while they still might have strong ideas about the work, I feel almost equal to them as performer and feel that it is my duty to make the piece my own, and I personally do better in that by not asking questions. I honestly pretend that the composer is dead even though when she/he is still alive.

After you feel you're ready to tackle a piece like the Unsuk Chin, how much space is there still for „taking risks“ on stage?

Why would there be less space for taking risks on stage? Each performance, never mind if it's Bach or Chin, I try to go through the creation process meaning I kind of pretend of improvising or composing the piece as I go along. If you look at my parts, they are blank - no fingerings, no bowings, no phrasings, no other words of wisdom - I want to leave myself the space to explore many different options. When going on stage I have not decided on exactly what to do at any given spot - I kind of go with the flow, let the music lead me while forming the phrases as I feel in the moment. No, I don't play every single performance differently, I don't try to play differently, but I try to "speak freely", not tied to an absolute game plan I have to follow. And this by itself presents a huge risk - it is easier to play perfectly (hit every single note) if there is only one option (or two), but if you speak spontaneously, you might get some words wrong...

Your constant travels also allow you to see how particular pieces are played and interpreted across the globe. How important is that for you in terms of finding new perspectives and ideas?
Actually this is one of the saddest points of our globalized world: people play music more or less the same all over the world. Thanks to the consumption of music on CD, people all over have the same "reference recordings", follow the same traditions and sometimes get stuck in the same interpretation, never mind if in the US, Australia or anywhere in Europe. Orchestras sound more and more the same (some better, some worse obviously). OK, there is in general a different way of orchestra playing in the US and in Germany, as US orchestras play more on the beat and through this are more precise while in Germany they tend to play after the beat which makes a different sound; maybe less precise but richer in sound.

By Tobias Fischer

Kodàly/ Debussy/ de Falla/ Kreisler/ Paganini (Primavera) 1991
Brahms/ Franck (IPPNW Concerts) 1992
Schubert/ Schumann (IPPNW Concerts) 1993
Bach/ Brahms/ Schubert IPPNW Concerts) 1997
Brahms Sonatas/ w. Markus Groh (Harmonia Mundi) 1998
Spanish Encores (EMI) 1999
Nielsen/ Barber (Amati) 2001
Anton Rubinstein (MDG Gold) 2003
Frederick Jacobi (Naxos American Classics) 2004
Bach, Britten, Kodály (Oehms Classics) 2004
The Romantic Cello Concerto Vol. I (Hyperion) 2005
Shostakovich & Schnittke Cello Sonatas/ W. Steven Osborne (Hyperion) 2006
The Romantic Cello Concerto Vol. II (Hyperion) 2007
Max Reger Cello Sonatas/ w. Max Becker (Hyperion) 2008
Alkan/Chopin: Cello Sonatas (Hyperion) 2008


Alban Gerhardt

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