The following has been adapted from an interview conducted by Barbara Cacao, Vienna Unwrapped and has been transcribed from a recording.
How much do you travel for work, and what is your favorite city to work in?
I actually travel 30 to 40 weeks a year. While I am not sure that I have a favorite city, all of those I have visited are great, though Seoul is certainly a bit different. Unlike being on holidays, you develop a different view on a city if you work in it. I like the “working view” of a city, but I am also aware that a musician is always embedded in a certain bourgeois environment, therefore you never get the whole picture of a place.
Where is home?
Home is where I sleep that night.
How do you spend your time when you aren’t working?
What do you mean? (smiles) I love working. Music is something you can’t stop doing in your head. Even when I just attend a concert or an opera I analyse the music I hear. During a musical performance I can anticipate when a problem might occur and that can be a bit tense.
Who is your favourite person to travel with?
My wife, and my 22-year-old daughter.
Travelling is always a mixture of what you have to do, and of leisure.
Describe your perfect New Year’s Eve.
I have had all kinds of New Year’s Eves, though most of them were spent in the orchestra pit. Among the most extraordinary were a ping pong club in New York City where I played table tennis, and a rooftop event in Vienna.
What do you get out of doing a concert series like Salute to Vienna?
I have two passions in music: first, the late romantic German music like Strauss and Wagner, and second, the light romantic music of the operetta. That’s the music of entertainment of 1850 to 1930. Salute to Vienna gives me the opportunity to visit elements of both.
I have now done 15 Salute to Vienna concerts. What I love most about the event is the communication with the audience. There is no microphone holding you to the spot, you don’t stay in the pit but move around on the stage.
My biggest inspiration here was Liberace. He was a real show person, and able to connect with audiences in seconds.
I also like that you are free to talk about what’s on your mind as you conduct. You start with the overture, and then you turn around and talk to the audience. It’s a different experience for me as conducting can be exhausting. I remember when I first met Attila Glatz at Café Dommayer in Vienna where Strauss once played. His first question was “Do you speak French?” For my first concert in Montréal I wrote a full script in French. After that concert, I discovered that I wanted to change things round during the performance, so I kept my scripts looser.
We cannot expect the audience to know all about music. We need to give people a chance to understand what a conductor is doing. Unlike in the 19th century, we cannot assume everyone has enjoyed a thorough musical education. When I listen to the Blue Danube waltz, for example, I imagine walking up Leopoldsberg with my fiancée after a summer ball, just before sunrise. Dew drops would be falling slowly, and from the mountain, we would see the Danube like a silver ribbon. The cembalo produces the mist, the horn is the sun rising. I like to share this image to the audience. I find that if you transfer your own images of a piece, people will join you in appreciating the music. The playful tone of Salute to Vienna concerts gives me room to do this, and I really enjoy being able to connect with the audience in this way.
Interview and photo by Barbara Cacao