Can you tell us about being assistant to conductor Claudio Abbado last year?
As you can imagine, when you first work with someone like Abbado, it’s intimidating. You’re working with a legend. But it’s such a wonderful experience. From the first day to the last, I enjoyed working with him. I felt pressure to help him achieve his expectations and to be committed to the music – as he was himself. He was very demanding with himself. So I tried to study as deeply as possible. Towards the last days of his life we were very close and he was very generous to me.
What did being assistant to him involve on a practical level?
Assisting means practically everything you can imagine: from making sure all the dynamics, articulation and so forth in the musicians’ scores are clear, to sitting together with scores listening to CDs. Sometimes I would conduct in rehearsal while he listened from the audience seats. We did that with Bruckner Nine. It was valuable for him as your ear can be more critical when you’re not conducting – you have more space and are more relaxed. Very often we would meet before rehearsals to talk about things from the previous rehearsal and about what to pay attention to in the next. He had a sociable and relaxed way of talking about music.
How would you describe his conception of Bruckner’s Ninth?
It was a very natural and organic approach. He would talk about how he was going to conduct, but it was when he stood in front of an orchestra that he would have the clear answer. He was very concerned about finding the right tempos, but for me it was also special to see him beating in quite broad movements, without always subdividing the beats. He was always listening. It created movement in a slow organic way and that’s something he could do better than anyone else.
The idea of making chamber music on a symphonic scale is often mentioned in relation to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. How do you do that in large-scale Bruckner?
It’s about listening. The conductor doesn’t just give every beat, they react to the music. It was when he was hearing the music that he knew what to do. He couldn’t tell you in advance or even afterwards what he did or why – it just happened. It’s very hard to beat so little, so slowly, not subdividing and still to get the flow when the tempo is so slow. I remember when we worked on the last bars of the symphony, I said it’s really hard to beat so slowly. He looked at me with his characteristic smile and said, ‘Why? What’s so difficult?’ Which didn’t mean he didn’t find things difficult – he did. This piece is difficult. But with his charming manner, he would say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
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