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Interview with Daniela Lehner

img  Tobias Fischer

You've been part of the BBC's  „New Generation Artists“ program, a term of course intended to denote future stars. But do you perhaps also feel part of a „new generation“ of artist that is approaching classical music from a different angle?
Different angle? I don’t know... Classical music, by definition, is not new. So for me, the angle cannot be too new either. Much of this seems to be visual: More and more classical musicians seem to present themselves via a sort of pop star image in order to attract new audiences. Today’s artists also have greater possibilities to promote themselves, their work and their recordings globally via the web. For me, it is important to not only perform the so-called standard repertoire, but to also research, perform and record little-known music by „forgotten“ composers. My special interests are German, Austrian and Spanish/Latin American music. The BBC New Generation Artists program has been invaluable in this sense: I was encouraged to choose my own repertoire - the more unusual, the better.

Steve Reich once said that it didn't make sense for American artists to try and emulate their European counterparts because „growing up amidst baseball and hotdogs“ had no connection to Vienna in the early 20th century. How, then, would you say, is early 20th century Austrian music – such as that of Alexander von Zemlinsky, for example - of interest to you, as an Austrian artist „growing up amidst Rock, Techno and Mobile Phones“?
I actually didn’t grow up amidst rock, techno and mobile phones at all. Quite the contrary: I spent my childhood in a small village in rural Austria, with neither mobile phones or computers around... I am actually very grateful to have grown up in the in fields and forests, so to say... Easy access to nature is one of the things I miss a lot living in London.
Classical music still plays an important part in people’s lives in Austria. Nearly every village, no matter how tiny, has an excellent music school and children learn to play at least one instrument. I played flute, piano and guitar and had singing lessons from an early age. I often accompanied myself - rather badly, I'm afraid - on the guitar, which caused my father to employ high hopes that one day I would grow up to be a famous pop star! I chose classical music instead and I sometimes suspect that my poor father still hasn’t overcome his disappointment...
Funny that you should mention Zemlinsky: at the moment I am preparing, among other things, an orchestral recording of Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck songs! I find Austrian fin-de-siecle music, art and literature fascinating.

In which way do you feel it relevant, when preparing for a program like „Vienna Passions“, that you actually know the city?
To be honest, I probably don’t know Vienna as much as I should know it! Klemens - the baritone in this concert - and I are both from Upper Austria, which is very different from Vienna. But I have visited Vienna often, have performed there and, maybe most importantly, have spent considerable time in various „Heurige“, typical Viennese taverns, and coffee houses. I really like the Heiligenstadt part of the town, where Beethoven wrote his famous Heiligenstaedter Testament, which appears not to have changed much since Beethoven’s time, the vineyards and the Vienna Woods. I do think it is important to know Vienna and Viennese culture for this sort of repertoire. It definitely helps to be Austrian and to have grown up hearing this music. It is quite specific, so it is easier for Austrians to capture the accent and distinct dialect.

What attracted you to the composers and the repertoire of „Vienna Passions“?

The BBC! They thought it would be nice to do a Viennese concert series, came up with the title „Vienna Passions“ and asked whether I would like to put a programme together. The only condition from their side was to include some lighter Viennese repertoire.
I think it will be a nice and rather fun programme  – songs and duets by Schubert and Beethoven to start with, then a group of songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (some of them in English), a bit of operetta and of course plenty of „Wienerlieder“ - typical Viennese songs. Most of them are about - surprise, surprise - Vienna, violins and waltzes, plenty of wine and of course the Danube. I have the bad feeling that I’ll end up with an acute allergy to F-major and ¾ rhythms before long!

Do you feel as though there's a definite direction to your career at the moment or can things get confusing at times?
A frightening lack of direction actually, and it does worry me. There are so many things that seem beyond my control! On the one hand there are my own, specific musical interests and preferences and the way I would like my career to go. On the other hand there are projects that come from the outside and are not necessarily what I had in mind at all  - which is not always a bad thing, of course. I think that so far I have managed to keep a good balance between the two. I try to be true to myself, stick to the things I care about and hope that they’ll pave the way for me.

On the one hand, you're working with established structures and institutions and, on the other, doing things on your own. Which aspects of the business would you rather keep under your own control?

If it was at all possible, I would prefer to keep everything under my control! But it isn’t, of course... In any case I value outside input and suggestions from people with far greater experience and insight than mine. There's a few persons in whom I trust and whose advice I ask very frequently.

Take the process of organising a CD recording of songs and lieder, for example. How difficult has this been in terms of fundraising and making all the necessary arrangements?
It is not easy, to put it mildly. It is a challenging time for the recording industry, and it is difficult to find a label which is willing to take on a CD with this kind of repertoire. I also have to do all the fundraising pretty much all by myself – so far I am only about halfway there. And then there is the question of finding engineers, a producer, an affordable recording venue, dealing with copyright issues and so on. The Borletti-Buitoni Trust has been great, not only in terms of financial help, but also in terms of giving advice. Several other organisations and individuals have contributed too. It can be quite exciting to be creative with fundraising, but more often than not I wish there were less obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, a DIY approach seems to be the only way for someone like me to record a disc with the repertoire I like.

With regards to the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which you just mentioned, as well as the BBC, it would seem, then, that awards, grants and scholarships have been extremely helpful to you ...
I have been extremely lucky to have been awarded many different grants and scholarships – without them I might not have been able to pursue my studies and career. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the thrill of taking part in competitions and entered every one I could find. I guess it was good for me in many ways... exposure, performing under pressure, learning new repertoire and so on. A few years later, I grew less fond of them, but still found competitions a rather useful means to finance my studies. I also made some important contacts and connections by taking part – I got to know the wonderful Marilyn Horne for example. She invited me to give my debut in Carnegie Hall in her festival, and we have been in touch ever since.
But by now I’ve grown to dislike competitions very much. In my opinion they often allow too little scope for individual and unusual approaches to music-making. Moreover, because of their highly subjective nature, there is invariably a lot of bitterness and disappointment involved for many competitors. Yes, they can be important for people’s careers; and true, many musicians are drawn to the exposure and thrill of competing. I felt it myself, but now I rather leave it to others...
Luckily I did not have to enter any competition for the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and BBC New Generation Artists program.These two schemes have completely different ways of choosing their artists. To quote Mitsuko Uchida, who is very much involved in the Borletti-Buitoni Trust: „I find competitions far too much of a lottery. It's a fact of life that some players are not suited to competitions, but does that mean therefore they are not acceptable for a musical career?"
The Trust not only helps musicians financially, but also offers advice about literally every career aspect. It also means instant access to a wide network of artists and important contacts in the music world. On top of this, many of the prize winners are given the opportunity to collaborate with well-known musicians – for example, Mitsuko Uchida invited me to perform with her at the Berlin Philharmonie.

From your perspective as an artist at the beginning of her career, what kind of support would you generally wish for which isn't available at the moment?
I still have a long way to go of course, but I hope I am not at the very beginning of my career! I have been incredibly lucky to have help from generous and kind people most of the time and I consider myself very fortunate to have a duo partner like Jose Luis Gayo. He was the one who introduced me to the vast repertoire of Spain, Latin America and Brazil  - repertoire which suits my character very well. Jose Luis is not only a wonderful pianist, person and musician, but also possesses an almost angelical patience –very useful when working with someone as temperamental and impulsive as I am - often people think I am the Spaniard and he's the Austrian. He also takes our duo incredibly seriously, spends a lot of time researching and is open to any idea, however crazy. At the same time he is unassuming and cares more about the music than about himself. Having our duo and working with a like-minded person gives both of us the chance to explore lesser known repertoire and work in great detail. We rehearse nearly every day, so we can spend a lot of time polishing the pieces we work on. I think that far too often concerts are prepared in a rush – the musicians fly in from different parts of the world, rehearse a bit, play the concert and rush off to their next engagement with someone else. I try not to do that sort of thing... if I can avoid it. And this duo is my way of avoiding those situations.

One of the most prestigious distinctions must have been working with/for Live Music Now. Your time there is now coming to an end. What kind of projects were part of your work there?

There are so many. Once in Wales we were in an old people's home. The staff brought in a man in a wheelchair who suffered from severe dementia. I was told that they had not seen any reaction from him for a long time, but they thought that it would be good to let him listen to the concert: apparently his wife, also a mezzo soprano, had been singing for the Welsh National Opera. I sang a song for him, and all of a sudden he lifted his head, his face in tears. I will always remember the looks of amazement which the staff exchanged among them.
Another time we did an inter-generational project in Tower Hamlets, which involved white East-enders in their 70's and children from mainly Bangladeshi backgrounds. The workshop took place over several weeks and it was exhausting to say the least! It was huge fun though... and I’ve even learned some Cockney!
We recently did some concerts and workshops with schoolchildren in Belfast – they came up to hug me afterwards, did some brilliant Irish dancing for me and told me that I was the „best opera singer in the whole world“. Music critics, I hope you are reading this!
In another LMN concert in Belfast, Jose and I forgot part of our equipment - loudspeakers in a big metal box - in the car park of a care home. We drove away and switched off our mobile phones for the day – just to discover frantic voice messages the next morning... Apparently, we had managed to call out the Belfast police squad to examine the suspicious box! When we sheepishly returned to the care home to pick up the speakers, we expected everyone to be pretty angry with us... But instead the elderly residents excitedly assured us that now they had something to talk about for one year at least!

What was the selection process for Live Music Now like?
Many years ago, Yehudi Menuhin came to a small Austrian town to conduct a youth orchestra, and my little sister played first flute. Throughout a week of rehearsals we got to know Yehudi Menuhin and were very impressed with him as a musician and as a human being. He was so kind to everyone, so attentive and so humble at the same time. And he felt passionately about Live Music Now. I was just a teenager then, but he urged me to study and live in London at some point and he made me promise to audition for Live Music Now. So when, some years later, I found myself with a scholarship for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in my pocket, I made sure I’d fulfil this promise. My audition was awful – I was ill and felt truly dreadful that day, but I wanted to get on the scheme very badly. My determination must have come across – Jose and I were taken on, and this audition marked the beginning of one of the best and most touching experiences of my life.

Were you under the impression that Menuhin's spirit was still very much alive in the organisation despite his passing away roughly a decade ago?
Very much so. Live Music Now tries to follow Yehudi Menuhin’s guidelines and views as much as possible. The organisation looks for musicians who are not only excellent performers, but also possess a liking and aptitude for the very specific audiences of the Live Music Now environment.

Was the social aspect of it as important as the musical part?

I believe that I have grown both as a musician and as a human being. It was also important for our duo – Jose and I were in on this together. We met extraordinary people and had access to worlds very different from ours. LMN musicians receive special training to cope with all kinds of different audiences and situations – blind people, dementia patients, hospitals patients, children with special needs, people in hospices etc. It is not easy, it is not glamorous and it can be emotionally and physically extremely exhausting. Ten outreach concerts in five days, carrying a heavy keyboard around and driving to remote places in the middle of nowhere makes you quite tough. I don't get exhausted very easily any more - you learn to think on your feet and are challenged all the time. But I found it one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Also, my LMN experiences have helped me to get through challenges in my own life more easily.

It seems as though the idea of established artists following in Menuhin's footsteps and offering their experience, is essential.
The wonderful thing about Live Music Now is that there is none of the hierarchy which one often encounters in the classical music business. In Live Music Now, people come together as equals on the same level – it doesn’t matter whether someone is famous or not. Anyone who participates does it because they believe in the idea. It was great for me to get to know high profile musicians in such a relaxed environment. For example, violinist Maxim Vengerov came along to one of our concerts in a care home. He was very interested and was extremely kind, stayed around to chat with Jose and me and then went off to play in a London hospital himself.

Now both the BBC program and Live Music Now have come to a close, what's up next for you? You seem to place a lot of value on recording projects ...
I didn’t specifically look for recordings – it just so happened really. All the BBC projects are recorded, so there wasn’t exactly much of a choice! But by now I’ve caught the recording bug I think. While I love concert work and performing for a live audience, I enjoy time in the studio,collaborating with producers, being able to do several takes of a passage etc.
What’s up next for me? Well, the BBC has booked me for more performances and recordings, there are concert, oratorio and chamber music projects and –a little bit further off  – opera productions. The BBC orchestras have been great and have embraced my - often rather unusual! - ideas with enthusiasm. For example, among other things, I am very much looking forward to is a recording of Zarzuela arias and Spanish orchestral songs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And I really, really hope that my CD recording is going to work out.
Other than that, I hope that I will be still be involved in Live Music Now in some way, maybe by sharing my experiences with the next generation of Live Music Now musicians. Also, I am doing some work for a small music charity, run by mostly ex-LMN musicians. The charity organises instrumental lessons for children who wouldn’t normally have the chance to learn an instrument. The idea is to provide not only instruments and lessons, but to also pay for family outings to concerts and so on. It is an interesting experience to be on the admin side for a change.

Conductor Stefan Solyom said: „Singers are a fascinating species. They are the most exposed of all musicians, since they have no instruments to hide behind“ - do you indeed occasionally feel naked on stage?
No, I don’t actually. I place a lot of value on recital work – a situation in which it is all up to the singer and the pianist to convey the music and the words... no costumes, no props, no director, no conductor. I understand that this can make some singers feel „naked“, but I see it as an advantage: there is not much to distract from the music and the text. What I love most is to work closely with a trusted partner, be it a pianist or a group of chamber musicians, to make the music come alive... and try to convey this joy to the listeners. For me, the audience and the rapport with the listeners plays a vital role in a live performance... that’s part of my Live Music Now heritage, I guess!

By Tobias Fischer

Photo by Elisabeth Blanchet

Daniela Lehner

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