(cover photo courtesy of Ulrike von Loeper)
I recently had the honour of interviewing German Conductor Christian Schumann, in which I learned a lot about the Conducting world and the challenges and enjoyment it presents.
I was first introduced to his work at last years Krakow Film Music Festival, where I attended the Kon-Tiki Live in Concert event, which Christian conducted. And now, before this years Festival in Krakow, where Christian is conducting Shakespeare in Concert, I sat down to speak with him about the event, his life, his work and all things conducting.
Where it all began
Born in 1983 to Hungarian parents, Christian didn’t take long to be captured by music.
My parents took me to a place where I could bang some drums as a baby, then I started playing the piano at the age of 6. If you give me an instrument for 2 hours, I will probably be able to tickle some music out of it. I always had that childish interest and joy to play and explore, which I think one has to maintain.
Right away I was convinced of his musical ability, both with a baton in his hand, and with an instrument. He went on to discuss how important he felt it was to have both of those abilities, if you want to be a successful conductor.
A conductor has to have a good knowledge, among others, about instruments and history. The more instruments you play yourself, the more you can help the musicians. For example, when I was studying conducting we had to play the piano, which was no problem for me because it is my main instrument. I love it and am still doing it now. I was playing the double bass, saxophone and the guitar as well.
While studying conducting, it was obligatory to play percussion, getting in-touch with all the percussion instruments; like how they work and sound. For example, how does a snare drum sound if you play it in the middle or the edge? Of course it isn’t about telling the musicians, can you please play more in the middle, it’s more about knowing the vocabulary with which you can get the right sound and music. In my opinion it’s also necessary to be trained at least on one instrument at the highest possible musical level, otherwise you will not be able to lift the orchestra to that level, as you’ve never experienced it yourself.
The most important thing he considers when conducting, is communication. There is no verbal contact during a concert between the conductor and the orchestra, so the rehearsal time is vital to a successful performance. The way a conductor interacts with the musicians during that time is how the performance will eventually be shaped. I asked him about that side of his work and how he utilises the time he has before a concert.
For me personally it’s very important in the first step to create the right atmosphere. They need to get to know me as a person and what our goals, aims and standards are. They should be comfortable and not feel patronised or dictated, rather encouraged and challenged. They should trust me because I need to trust them. During a concert, I’m not making a single sound, they are creating the music, so if there’s no trust or artistic communication between us, it’s going to be very difficult.
As you can see from the above performance, Christian’s work-ethic and approach to projects has a very energetic and seamless result, as the relationship between conductor and orchestra is clearly strengthened by his dedication to communication.
Personally, I find nothing more wondrous and beautiful than a live orchestra. The flow and connectivity that comes from so many people all working towards the same goal, makes you feel like they’re all one mind, one force and one sound hitting your ears. That resulting magic is the conductor guiding what should be chaos, into something truly special.
The relationship with an Orchestra
I then asked him about personally working with orchestras, and the preconceptions that can surround them.
Every orchestra and every section of an orchestra is different. They all have their own history and reputation. It usually starts with the question: Who are the people you will find at 3 am still at the bar? Those will definitely not be string players. That’s true so far. But for me there are no rules and I’m not categorising. I’m not gaining anything by approaching an orchestra and having a certain mindset. Thoughts like; ‘don’t touch the brass. The Percussion is always going to be too loud and the strings are going to be behind,’ are poison for me – one has to approach everything with a clean slate.
We spoke further about his interaction with orchestras:
I love this job so much because it’s a very complex way of bringing people together for the highest outstanding artistic results. You have to learn to navigate a human instrument during the rehearsal period of 5-6 days, in opera even months. Especially in those first days it’s crucial that they don’t get either bored or tired or hate you after 5 minutes. Also one needs to make sure that no musician ever has to wait in a rehearsal for more than half an hour before playing a first note. You need to be aware of a lot of human characteristics, like who are the people who need inspiration, who really needs help, who just had a bad day or a bad breakfast and who is going to simply play like a god if you don’t even look at her or him? Don’t interfere if you don’t have to, just let them play, do NOT disturb. When the musicians feel that they’re part of the whole process, and not just marionettes being pulled to the left and right, they become more interested and it’s more likely that they become part of the long view.
Education and influences
To understand more about his influences and his interests, I delved back into his earlier days in conducting. He was educated in the art at the University of Music in Freiburg, where he also continued his studies in Piano. Then he advanced his schooling at Franz Liszt University of Music in Weimar, studying Composition and Conducting under Michael Obst and Nicolas Pasquet respectively. “After my studies, I met Frank Strobel, a specialist conductor when it comes to silent film accompaniment.”
He spoke a little about his first taste of that medium:
After having studied my repertoire as a classical conductor, I was introduced to the art of silent film conducting. This is conducting music without any kind of visual help; no streamers, no punches, not even a time-code, just the pure 35mm film running noisily in the projection room. With Metropolis for example, you guide the orchestra through 2 and a half hours synced to the film without any technical help. So you have maybe 5,000 sync points, and your brain goes ‘Ahead? Behind? Okay important sync-point coming up!’ paired with musical expression and emotion.
We continued to talk about film music and conducting film concerts, as he was excited to discuss his opinions on the subject.
Film music is highly interesting. It isn’t the question of good or bad music, it’s whether the music is working with the image or not. I like how Film music isn’t a genre, it breaks down the fences around different camps and brings them together. It can unify people of different musical styles. For example, sometimes in rehearsals for a classical concert I use film references as a means of imagery. I would say to the musicians, ‘imagine this certain scene from this or that movie,‘ it can be a wonderfully miraculous tool.
The Krakow Film Music Festival
Naturally talking about film music brought us onto the Krakow Film Music Festival. At last years Festival, Johan Soderqvist’s Kon- Tiki was performed live to the film. The concert was conducted by Christian himself, and he couldn’t have spoken more highly of the opportunity:
I was approached by the festival last year, asking if I was interested in conducting Kon-Tiki, and I said with the greatest pleasure, yes. I’m very grateful that they trusted me with steering the Kon-Tiki raft for 90 minutes in front of thousands of people. After the concert, I thought ‘this was one of the most moving experiences in my entire career’ because of the communication between us, the orchestra, the composer, the sound department, and all the people involved. Sometimes I ask myself why it can’t be like this always, but I’m particularly fond of this memory.
I was lucky enough to attend the festival and the Kon-Tiki concert last year, which was a pleasure to witness. Wonderful musicians led by a wonderful conductor, made the film even more enchanting, and Johan Soderqvist was very grateful and touched by the devotion and effort put in by Christian and the performers.
How he approaches different projects
With the sheer amount of different works Christian has been involved in; from film music concerts to Opera, and from Classical music concerts to contemporary music concerts, I wanted to know how exactly he treats the work from project to project.
The best projects work if you’re open minded without any presumption. I always prepare 150%, invest 150% and give 150% in the concert. Of course the way of preparing differing projects varies a lot. Already preparing for example, The Magic Flute (Mozart) and what I conducted a month ago; Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is completely different. Kon-Tiki last year and Shakespeare in concert this year – an entirely different pair of shoes. For me it can only work if I start from the very bottom and try to make the best of it. Every single project has its own specific challenge, and in my case; the more types of challenges you learn to handle, the more complete musician you are in the 21st century.
We spoke a little more about the upcoming Krakow Film Music Festival, in which he is involved with again, and also about the complexities of the event as a whole, including the organisational aspects.
They think things through very thoroughly. Considering my classical training, they were probably analysing which program would suit me best. So this year it will be Shakespeare in Concert, a spectacular tribute to the genius with its various musical adaptations.
On the planning aspect, we have 5 days of rehearsals, and it’s an unimaginable work of logistics. Moving 80 musicians, 60 choir members, instruments, soloists and celebrities to all the different locations is tough and the people in Krakow are doing an incredible job.
He was also very happy to return to the festival in the future if he was approached to do so:
I was so glad they invited me back. If they like what I’m doing, I would very much love and appreciate continuing this collaboration with the festival.
The future is bright
I was then interested in how he sees the future of orchestras and the difference between established orchestras and younger, less experienced orchestras.
It’s important and great to work with young musicians, because in my eyes it’s crucial to offer them a special and extraordinary musical experience. Routine can be helpful, but it is also an evil route we have to be aware of and limit to its positive nature.
Finally, I was very interested in his future. I have observed his ventures into composing and of course his background in composition studies, but I was curious as to whether composing was something he was interested in pursuing alongside his conducting.
There are so many things I’d love to do! I personally find it very helpful and very healthy to have specific aspects of music-making as my private enjoyment. Where I just say, ‘okay I’m closing my scores, turning off my computer, shutting down, and just playing Tristan or Salome piano reductions on the piano.’ Coming from a mainly classical background, but having explored many other musical directions including jazz music or playing in various bands -so to speak being ad-hoc creative- I more and more feel the urge to write music myself. Right now it’s a matter of balancing my time, but I´m looking forward to finding the best balance for myself.
Very intelligent and inspiring words, which I found he was filled with throughout our interview. It was very refreshing to speak to someone who, not only is very skilled in his field, but who is also very enthusiastic about it as well. He believes in the music he is working with. He respects those who came before him and those who will follow him, and most importantly he is continuing the life and future of music by seeing that it is performed live in front of an audience.
If you wish to see Christian in action, he will be conducting the Shakespeare in Concert event on 29th May, as part of this years Krakow Film Music Festival taking place from 27th-31st May.
To find out more about Christian and his various works, concerts, and a little more about his past, you can find that on his website.