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Interview with Stefan Solyom

img  Tobias Fischer

Is humanity a rare character trait for conductors?
I think that in order to succeed in your role as conductor, you have to set a certain part of your humanity aside. When you stand on the podium, you are there to work, not to make jokes or be the good guy, loved by everyone. Thus, yes, I do believe it's quite rare, at least in the work situation. I myself was indoctrinated with the motto "Always remain a human being!" already as a child, so I guess I do value humanity as an important part of my own character.

How would you describe your approach?

I try to convince each musician that there is only one way for the piece in question to be played at that particular time. I see it as my duty to make it as easy as possible for the musicians to communicate with one another, and to relentlessly remind them to when they don't. I also work very much with imagery and basic feelings, since that, to me, is what music is about. Hanslick [an influential 19th century music critic] would not have liked me.

In how much is your take on conducting shaped by your personal experience as an instrumentalist?

I have the advantage of knowing the apparatus of an orchestra from the inside. This might seem like a cliché, but it is imperative to understand the beast in order to control it. I remember fantastic playing experiences, like for example a Mozart symphony with Sir Colin Davis; I was preparing for a single note, one of those notes you’re nervous about, because you know it is exposed, although it’s really not a big thing for anyone listening, unless you miss it: still, he looked at me a whole bar in advance, smiled, and made me feel that that single note, so important to me, was just as important to him.

Were there role model for your own style as a conductor?
When it comes to role models, it’s difficult to name only one, since there are so many aspects to conducting. I’ve learned about technique from many people, also by watching them: Leif Segerstam, Ilja Musin, Lorin Maazel, rehearsal technique by studying people like Carlos Kleiber and Jorma Panula. It wasn’t really until long after my education that I realized just how important the basic technique that I learned there really is. Naturally, it’s only part of the complex profession of conducting: things like group dynamics, rehearsal technique and self-confidence are difficult to teach and best learned through experience, in my opinion.

An orchestra is a massive, coherent body of musicians as well as a group of individuals. How do you take both into account?

I try to use eye contact to acknowledge the presence of each and every musician in every rehearsal and in every concert. Sometimes I fail, naturally, but I strive to make an effort. The other thing that is important is to make the orchestra feel that they are important to each other and that no one is expandable in the process of making the orchestra excel as a group.

Have there ever been cultural difficulties with regards to your previous assignments?

The first time I worked with a French orchestra, my French was extremely limited, and it seemed they didn’t really listen, when I tried to rehearse in English. On top of that, I was a 22-year-old Swede, trying to teach them how to play Berlioz. That one didn’t go down very well, I had the impression. In Germany, on the contrary, I felt quite well from the start. I think my somewhat more advanced knowledge of German helped there.

In which way is the addition of singers adding a special difficulty, challenge and pleasure to the equation?
Singers are a fascinating species. They are the most exposed of all musicians, since they have no instruments to hide behind. This, to me, puts dealing with singers on a much more personal level, where it is important to establish a mutual trust between the conductor and the singer. In addition to that, an opera singer has to concentrate on singing a whole role by heart, following the stage direction, and singing together with the orchestra. I can imagine that there are orchestra members who think that the singers get an extreme amount of attention during an opera performance, but one has to remember that the soloists stand completely alone, while the orchestra musician mostly can enjoy the support of the collective.

Let's turn towards the process of shaping a piece of music. What is it you are working on as a conductor – a work, the translation of the composer's intentions, a group performance, a vision?
When performing a piece, the foremost priority to me is to try, to the highest possible extent, to convey the composer’s intentions to the audience. This does not always mean following the written score to the smallest detail. If a melody is important in a context, and cannot be heard, you’re better off changing dynamics, than stubbornly keeping everyone within their prescribed decibel range. Traditional music notation is a very diffuse written language, and sometimes one has to read between the lines, to give the piece justice. When dealing with dead composers, all we really have is the piece they put down on paper, and that’s what we need to make into an interesting listening experience to the audience.

Glenn Gould recommended in terms of interpretation to first look at the score without actually playing it or listening to recordings for a week to form your own perspective. Only later should one compare one's own ideas with those of others ...

I hardly ever study using a piano; instead I tend to start by reading the score through a few times, focusing first on the main line, then on the bass line, and then on everything going on in between. After that, I tend to look at every detail, asking the same questions that a musician would: what articulation and what dynamic should the passage have, and perhaps most important, why. Then I, like Mr. Gould, compare my ideas with other recordings, the difference being that I don’t always use a week for these preparations. With the operatic repertoire I use a slightly different approach: I start by singing through every part, in order to get a feel for the relation between the text and the tempo, and to establish the points where the singers will be most likely to breathe.

From your experience, is working on light-hearted productions possibly even more difficult than on “serious” works like Wagner-operas?

A Wagner opera is difficult because of its very length; you have to find a pacing that keeps the tension up for an entire act, and this goal can only be reached by meticulously planning your trajectory in advance, almost like planning a bank robbery: if your plan isn’t completely water-proof, the police will get you, or, in this case, the critics. On the other hand, the two most difficult operas I have ever conducted were The Barber of Seville and Die Fledermaus; the timing of the musical jokes, the lightness of touch, finding the right character for every scene, all these things demand that you constantly are aware of which comic situations occur on stage. Both genres are difficult, but at the same time extremely rewarding.

What, from your perspective, is the thing most people get wrong about conducting?

Most of the time, people seem to think that it’s only about time beating; although this plays a part, conducting is about so much more. But the funniest question I sometimes get is: “So, you’re a conductor… and what’s your day-time job?”

By Tobias Fischer

Stefan Solyom

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