Thursday 30 June 2011

Andris Nelsons

At the age of 29, the Latvian, Andris Nelsons, was appointed Music Director to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO).

This is a prestigious position for a conductor as the CBSO, which has grown into a 90-piece ensemble, has gained a worldwide reputation since Simon Rattle became the Principal Conductor in 1980.

One would have thought that an orchestra of such calibre would have chosen their music director after a protracted period of contemplation and review of several candidates, but quite the contrary. Nelsons was appointed to the job in 2008 following only a private concert and a recording session, without having conducted the CBSO in public. The young conductor is signed through the 2013-2014 season.

There must be something about him as to why the CBSO decided to appoint him in this manner. Meeting with Nelsons one quickly gains a sense as to why the CBSO consider him the right man for the job: he comes across as a sympathetic, generous person who talks very knowledgeably, passionately and openly about his feelings and emotions in music, sometimes in an disarming way. One could understand that Nelsons is a person who can inspire and excite an orchestra.

Stephen Maddock, the CEO of the CBSO, called Nelsons “the next big thing” when he talked about the CBSO’s search for its new music director. Alex Ross, music critic of ‘The New Yorker’ expressed a similar thought whilst Nelsons was touring America as a guest conductor, writing “He has the makings of a great conductor, and orchestral administrations on several continents are doubtless keeping an eye on him”.

200% met with Nelsons in one of the dressing rooms of the Royal Opera House in London during the rehearsal period of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ to discuss whether music is his means to find answers to the ‘big questions of life’; how he finds solace in music; whether to sacrifice your life for another person; and the criticism of his expressive mimic and gestures when he conducts.

200%: You have called watching the opera performance of Wagner’s ‘Tännhauser’ as a five year old child “one of the strongest experiences of my life.” Could you explain why this experience made such a deep impression on you?
Andris Nelsons: This was the first opera I ever saw; had it been another opera, it might have also influenced me so strongly. Sitting amongst adults and being, perhaps, the only child in the audience might be one of the reasons why it made such an impression on me, but I think, most of all, it was being exposed at such a young age to serious questions about life and death, about love, that made a big impression on me. Since then, in my life, I have been thinking a lot about these ‘big questions’, about the purpose of life, etc. Maybe that’s why I became a very serious person [laughs].

The music of ‘Tännhauser’ which is not necessarily the music for a five year old, made a formative impression on me, as it is so powerful and compelling. I think since then Wagner has been a very strong influence on me as a composer. I love his music and it’s like an hypnotic power to me.

200%: Have there been other experiences in your life that have had similar impacts on you?
Andris Nelsons: Yes, about the same age, maybe one year later, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ by Franco Zeffirelli – a six hour long TV series about the life of Christ – made a big impact on me. I believe that ‘Tännhauser’ and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ are the reasons why I became a musician.

200%: What specifically appealed to you from ‘Jesus to Nazareth’ – was it, again, questions of life and death?
Andris Nelsons: Yes, I started to think about death from a very early age; what happens after death and what’s the reason of living? Should we be afraid of death or not? All these questions continually worry me, as they have worried all the great composers, such as Mahler, Wagner and Beethoven. Most of these composers I think, struggled with fate, with destiny, with death and love.

200%: Is music your means to find out the answers to those questions?
Andris Nelsons: I don’t know if you will find answers. Mahler ends his Ninth Symphony with a big question mark, which can be seen as the soul going to heaven, or somewhere, but still a question mark, ie what happens after death?

Beethoven finishes his Ninth Symphony almost like a victory, the “Ode to Joy” chorus in the final movement, but about what is this victory really?

Whilst it may not provide answers to these questions, I think the great thing about music is that it allows you to dream; to have different interpretations, scenarios of life. Through music you can ‘live’ all those different scenarios with a happy or a tragic end. Music gives me the ability to live a different life. It allows me to play different characters as when I conduct, for instance, an Opera like ‘Madama Butterfly’ I can identify myself with its characters; Butterfly, Pinkerton or Sharpless, which makes you live a different life at that moment.

Generally, in life I’m a shy person; when I conduct, though, I forget about my shyness. When I’m conducting, I can be brave, which I’m not every day, I can be an hero, a terrible or a nice man – I can be anything I want through music.

200%: Thus, is conducting a way for you to be your true self?
Andris Nelsons: Yes, I think so. Conducting allows me to show who I truly am, which I can’t do in everyday life, due to my shyness or, perhaps, out of politeness. When I’m conducting I can show my ‘feelings’ to the whole world, whether good or bad, and express myself without words, which is great as I’m not a person who is able to readily express himself in words. I try, but it never works [laughs]; through music I can express what I feel in life. Of course, when you rehearse with the orchestra you need to be clear, and express yourself through words, somehow that comes naturally to me.

200%: What attracts you about ‘Madama Butterfly’ which you perform at the Royal Opera House?
Andris Nelsons: ‘Madama Butterfly’, for me, is one of the strongest personalities in all history of music as she is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband, Pinkerton, who actually isn’t worthy of her. He is a very weak man with no backbone. He doesn’t have much of a conscience, which she knows, but still she loves him. She gave up her religion, she gave up her family, everything, for her love, her hopes, and finally sacrificed her life in the face of dishonour. I believe that to sacrifice yourself for someone else is the hardest act in life. I’m so fascinated about this and I don’t know if I could do it – I don’t think I could do it. Therefore, I believe this is why Butterfly’s story it’s such a touching and evocative story.

200%: Do you also find solace in music?
Andris Nelsons: I think I do. When I read about the work and life of composers I realize that I am not alone with problems or thoughts: they also struggled with thoughts such as escapism; pretending they didn’t see the problems or questions they didn’t want to face and, by not dealing with them, they become even bigger problems. As they also struggled with these issues I feel supported somehow realizing that I am not alone with doubts and insecurities.

200%: Is there a specific example of something with which you have personally struggled whereby you found solace in a particular classical composer’s life or work?
Andris Nelsons: [long pause] As I travel a lot for my work I experience feelings of being homesick. When I’m in America rehearsing and touring for one month, I sometimes feel very lonely and miss people who are close to me, my wife, my family.

Antonin Dvořák’s composed the Ninth Symphony ‘The New World Symphony’ when he was living in America. I always thought it was about his experiences and impressions of this country, but subsequently discovered that when he composed it Dvořák was feeling intensely homesick: this symphony is also about home, about being lonely and how it is to be lonely. The famous second movement [Largo] can be seen as a nostalgic reflection on his home country Czech Republic.

I like being in America, but when I’m there for a long time I start to miss Europe. Composers like Dvořák, Béla Bartók and Sergei Rachmaninoff endured periods of homesickness when they left their native country. When I first heard their music I couldn’t understand why these incredibly successful and wealthy composers made such sad and melancholic music. Now I understand it as I have experienced feelings of loneliness and homesick myself when I’m travelling.

These composers were living one hundred, two hundred years ago and it was more difficult for them to deal with these feelings as there were no mobile phones and the post was very slow. Today, if you love someone, you can text to them “I love you” and your message reaches them in one second. Or, when I’m sad, I can call someone and talk with them directly about how I feel. In those times, though, if you felt lonely you couldn’t immediately tell your loved ones – you had to write a letter, which took, maybe, one month to be received; then you open the letter and you read it and write a reply.

Thus, if they hadn’t experienced those difficulties and feelings of loneliness, they may not have been inspired to produce such great compositions. For me, dealing with loneliness, I find solace in their work.

200%: There has been some discussion about your conducting style on the Internet: some find your body language irritating, distracting and excessive, whilst others find it overtly physical and idiosyncratic, but point out that it is because of an enthusiasm and enjoyment of the music with your physical style being so clearly for the orchestra’s benefit. What is your view on your own conducting style?
Andris Nelsons: [Laughs] When I conduct I don’t think how I look in an aesthetic sense of “do I look nice or too sweaty”? I only think of how to communicate my ideas about music to the orchestra. This means that my mimic and my gestures can be quite expressive and some people might think it is too much. When I conduct I’m also very much in the moment, where the music takes me, and I don’t think about how my body moves looks from the audience’s viewpoint.

It might change with age as young conductors seem to have bigger gestures but when they get older they reduce their physical demeanor. In maturing, some conductors become very minimalistic in their gestures, for example, Yevgeny Mravinsky or Wilhelm Furtwängler, but they compensate with their great personality or their prestige as a conductor.

200%: Are you looking to that moment when you become a ‘minimalistic conductor’?
Andris Nelsons: Yes, I am. Some people say that the orchestra is like a horse, which you shouldn’t over control otherwise it will throw you off. You need to let it have free rein, but there are also moments when you need to rein it in.

As experienced musicians, orchestras can play themselves. There are, though, moments when they need your help, which you have to sense. The more and more you perform a work you have a sense of the moments “now I don’t need to conduct, it goes so great I shouldn’t disturb” or “here I need to be involved more”. Sensing these moments, finding this balance of whether to conduct or not, is what I believe comes with age and experience.

Interview conducted and written by Thierry Somers, with contribution from Marie Drysdale.
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Andris Nelsons will conduct ‘Madama Butterfly’ at The Royal Opera House on 2, 4, 8, 12, 15 July.

Friday 17 June 2011

John Currin

Artist John Currin talks about ‘the tools of his trade’.

200%: Do you have a favourite brush?
John Currin: My favourite is similar to Richard’s [Phillips], the Da Vinci Maestro hog bristle. My next favourite is probably my Rafael mongoose brushes. I also use sable brushes such as Escoda, Manet & Da Vinci – but they’re not my favourites.

200%: What do you like about the hog bristle?
John Currin: You can do a lot with it: in fact, you can almost do a whole painting with it. They’re very big, but you can do a surprising amount of detail with it.

200%: So you have a good feeling with that brush?
John Currin: Yes. There is only one problem in that Richard goes out and buys them out as soon as they come into the store. I’m pissed at him for that [laughs].

200%: Do you especially maintain them, clean them?
John Currin: They wear out so fast it is just better to buy a new one. They get ruined very quickly, get worn down. When they’re new they’re fantastic, and good for about four days of work; when they become ‘old’, you use them for other things.
My assistant, Suzanne [Bennett], cleans my brushes. Even when they’re clean, though, they’re never the same as the first time you use them. There is nothing like a brand new brush. They are 100 dollars each. One of the nice things of being successful is that you can buy tons of brushes.

200%: You do you have a favourite knife with which you paint?
John Currin: Yes. It’s an inexpensive knife that I’ve had since I was 25 years old, but it’s become my favourite. I have used it so much that the steel is worn into a very nice shape. It’s a very nice knife. I keep trying to get another one, that will be just as good, but they never are. There is something lucky about this one.

200%: What kind of paint do you use?
John Currin: I use a combination of things: regular old Winsor Newton; Robert Doak in Brooklyn makes really lovely paint; Old Holland Classic – that’s also a very nice paint; Blockx, that’s a Dutch one, and a Japanese company Holbein: they make very good paint and they make good palette knives, good metal things, very expensive.

200%: What do you like about these paints?
John Currin: It’s consistent, it’s good paint. Different brands do different colours best for example, Winsor Newton have very nice colours.

200%: How do you mix your paint?
John Currin: On a palette. Unlike other artists I don’t put my paint on a glass palette.

200%: In which position do you paint?
John Currin: I paint at an easel.

200%: Who stretches your canvases?
John Currin: I used to do it myself and then I hurt my thumb – I have arthritis in my thumb – so I don’t do it anymore. You have to be strong and I’m not strong enough anymore. Now Simon Liu stretches my canvases. They might do it by machine, but they do a fine job, so I’m happy with that. They glue the canvases with a rabbit skin glue to coat them and then they deliver them to my studio.

200%: And do you prime your canvases yourself?
John Currin: Yes, I hate doing it, but nobody else does it well, so I like to put the ground on myself, although my assistant, has done some and she has gotten pretty good at it. Also, the assistant of my wife [Rachel Feinstein], has also done some canvases for me and he, too, started getting good at it.

200%: What is the craftsmanship of priming a canvas?
John Currin: When you prime a canvas you put the paint on with a knife, similar to a spatula that a plaster worker uses. It takes a lot of skill and experience to do that properly. I have a certain preference how to prime my canvases and it’s important that the mix that is put on the canvas is right. Mine consists of white lead with a little bit of dry pigment in it and marble dust, like a talcum powder. It becomes this ugly grey blob of paste and you put it on the canvas with a knife.
Priming canvases is very time-consuming. When I’m painting as I would like to have a hundred canvases ready for me, I have to prepare a lot. I like my canvases to dry for a year before I use them.

200%: Working with paint and how to use it, has it been a trial and error process?
John Currin: Yes. I know by now what colour to use. If you’re going to make something yellow, there is a number of ways to make something yellow; you can just use yellow paint, but you can also paint it white and stain it yellow, or paint something red and paint the yellow over the red. It all makes different kinds of yellows, different character and that’s a big thing for me – how to make a colour look right. I don’t really paint opaquely. A lot of times, I probably should; I just don’t mix the colour on my palette and paint it on the canvas. For instance, with flesh tones, I first paint a ‘funny’ colour, put another colour over that and they combine transparently which makes this third colour, the colour that I want.

200%: Is craftsmanship something you would like the viewer to appreciate?
John Currin: No. I’d rather like that people don’t know about it. First of all my craftsmanship is so terrible compared to anybody in the Nineteenth Century, it’s not that great. It’s like drawing. I don’t want it to be some sort of moral thing that I do it because it is the right thing to do. I just do it because it’s the way I like it. I guess I also want to be able to say if I change my mind and I want to do it the ‘shitty’ way that I’m allowed [laughs]. A lot of my paintings have really God awful things in them and there are some wonderful, perfectly done things in them. It’s always a combination, and that’s actually true of all artists, even in the old days.

200%: When people admire your craftsmanship you’re not happy with that?
John Currin: I like it if people think that I’m a good painter, but in a way, to me, it feels like another way of saying I’m really boring [laughs]. I would like it if people thought I was the best painter in the world but I’d rather they thought that my paintings were beautiful, then well made, that they have a certain kind of magic.

As any painting that is good, it has a certain kind of magic. I’m not a big spiritual believer, or magical type of person, but I do think that painting is mostly magic, and at least has the effect of magic; it’s very hard to control how it turns out. You can control how it looks but you really can’t control the magic.

Written by Thierry Somers