If ever there were a time and place for someone to think up a collective noun for Music Director announcements, then it’s now, at Askonas Holt. For in recent months there has been a veritable swathe of them, and today Daniel Harding became the latest with the announcement that he will become Music Director at the Orchestre de Paris from the 2016/17 season.
Harding, understandably, is thrilled. “Paris, it goes without saying, is an irreplaceable cultural centre”, he enthuses. “A city that is vibrant in so many ways, and this is also a wonderful moment to be working there. The orchestra is in a great shape, but with an exciting desire to be challenged and to continue growing. The newly opened Philharmonie is an exquisite concert hall and a very clear symbol of the desire to connect the orchestra with the diverse communities in the city. It gives Paris a world-class venue to attract the greatest performers and orchestras from all over, and a wonderful tool for connecting music with other art forms and areas of creative enquiry. The Orchestre de Paris is going to be at the centre of a project that is about excellence, challenge and sharing”.
The appointment also promises the kind of joined-up work and home life that many top conductors can only dream of. “My kids live in Paris, and this of course helped my decision!”, he explains. “A conductor’s life involves an enormous amount of travel, so to spend time in the city where they live, being part of something I am so proud of and excited about is a win for all of us”.
The question of if and when to accept an additional Music Director post will always be a tricky one for a conductor, and Harding is refreshingly open about this. “I have spent the last eight years working in Sweden”, he begins, “and I have learned an enormous amount from the orchestra and the job. The project there is not finished and I am ludicrously happy with the orchestra! However, this project in Paris was too good to refuse”. He continues, “Every new relationship between a Music Director and an orchestra involves risk. One never knows how the relationship will be in this new situation, and how things will develop. But, this is a beautiful risk and I cannot wait to jump into it!”
Harding, of course, also remains Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), where another major announcement has recently been made. Namely, Sir Simon Rattle’s arrival as Music Director, starting in September 2017. The third in what is a trio of new Music Director appointments for Askonas Holt artists is yet another Brit, Jonathan Nott, who in 2017 will begin as Music Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR). He will be moving on from his phenomenally successful sixteen-year tenure as Music Director of the Bamberg Symphony.
These appointments and renewals matter to Askonas Holt because Music Directors, above all other performance careers, have an impact stretching far beyond simply conducting the best possible performance on a given night. Quite simply, a Music Director has a brief to change lives and communities.
“Daniel going to the Orchestre de Paris and Jonathan going to the OSR are really important for us” says Donagh Collins, Chief Executive of Askonas Holt. “These are also long term contracts, meaning that these conductors will sit at the centre of those communities in those important cities making important decisions about those orchestras such as their direction in the years to come, their touring decisions, exactly where they’ll sit within their own national situations. So, the representation of conductors and the overseeing of appointments as Music Directors and of Chief Conductors is a core element to what we hope to achieve as a company”.
Never was this more clear than with the long-anticipated return to the UK of Sir Simon Rattle. “Simon loves the LSO and is hugely excited about what he can achieve with them,” explains Collins, who acts as artist manager to Rattle. “He’s also really interested in what an orchestra is in the 21st century: how the orchestra can make a difference not just in London but for the entire nation, and how a new music centre in London could serve not just as a place in which the LSO can be resident, but also and more importantly serve as a hub for music education for the whole country. I think Simon can be the face of that, and the catalyst for this taking place”.
All this meant that the context for Sir Simon’s LSO announcement, amidst the increasing government and mayoral support for a new music centre in the City of London, was crucial to his final decision. In fact, despite heavy press speculation for well over a year beforehand, he only made the final decision in the weeks immediately leading up to the March announcement. Collins explains, “He thought, if ‘I put my weight behind it now, then we can all move forward together in good faith’”. And indeed that was what happened, as the government then decided to award money towards a feasibility study to see how a music centre could work. As a result, an appointment that had sounded like a foregone conclusion became a spectacular announcement. Because, as Collins points out, “It really can be a story for the nation if we get this right”.
One would imagine that keeping such a speculated-upon announcement under wraps for this long would be an uncomfortable job for an artist manager. However, not so, according to Collins. “If we had diluted it by talking too much or being indiscreet it wouldn’t have helped anybody, including the LSO”, he points out, “and let’s be honest, it’s fun! To pull this rabbit out of a hat. And it’s an honour now to be a part of the journey towards what could be a new music centre in London. It’s working at a high level, and it’s what a company like ours should be doing”.
Timing is an aspect that Jonathan Nott has been considering equally hard in the two or three years since he decided that, it was right to give the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra the opportunity to continue their development with someone new.
“The question was what to do”, he says. “I had several possibilities and several wishes, from devoting more time to studying, to perhaps teaching, to perhaps writing a book, or finding more opportunities to do opera. Then, suddenly, things happened quickly, because all three of my current positions (the latest with the OSR, plus I’ve only just finished my first year with the Tokyo Symphony, and only just started with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie) were offered after only four or five days working together. In other words, I followed my instincts. There were three or four times when I didn’t go in a direction that was put on the table, because I didn’t think it was quite the right thing, even though I wasn’t basing that decision on any cut-and-dried criteria. It was simply, it just didn’t feel right with these particular players at this particular time”.
It certainly feels very right with the players of the OSR, as they voted for him with an overwhelming majority, which is a rare thing and something that matters enormously to him. The OSR’s sound feels tailor-made for Nott, too. “From my youth as a chorister and then as a young musician, I’ve always found I was very drawn towards French music”, he explains. “French music is like grasping something that appears to be solid, but which then disappears into your hands and floats away. There’s an element of improvisation and of eloquence that is different to German music, of which I have had much experience over the past twenty-five years. So then, this orchestra which has grown up with a sense of line and flightiness – of “not-chained-down-ness” – is something that I’m very much looking forward to”.
Equally, though, it’s the city of Geneva itself which excites him. “It’s a place where there’s an enormous amount of support, both politically and privately, to make sure that classical music isn’t an elite form for the congniescienti, but is genuinely something that is for everyone and can have the power to change everyone’s life and therefore gets backing”, he muses. “So, it’s the heritage of the orchestra, the skill of the players, the willingness to try something new, and the place in which this music is getting made, that seems to be a cauldron of immense potential”.
If all these high-profile MD announcements weren’t enough, existing MD contracts held by Askonas Holt artists are being renewed at a similar rate. Louis Langrée will be staying another three years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev has extended his contract with Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse until at least 2019, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be staying on with The Philadelphia Orchestra for another five years.
With regard to the latter of these, Donagh Collins comments, “Now, there’s an example of more work being done in an orchestra that’s really surrounded Yannick. They’re thrilled to be getting themselves back on track financially, and Yannick’s at the centre of that, in what he’s achieving artistically for the orchestra”. He concludes, “Music Directors really make a difference if they get it right”.
Yannick agrees. “When I arrived with the orchestra, they had just emerged from bankruptcy and financial troubles. There was a lot of responsibility, not only on my shoulders but on the entire institution, to reconnect with the city in general, and to reconnect with the international market. Now, with the recordings, the tours, our audiences, many sold-out concerts, and more community and educational projects, I feel that we’re more than on the right track”. As a result, he’s looking forward to the artistic developments to come. “On a purely musical basis it was love at first sight with this orchestra”, he enthuses. “We could make music without talking, as if we had already been working together for a long time. But now, we can work in an even deeper way and take every piece of repertoire which we would normally be able to do with no or very little rehearsal, and take time to really think about it”.
Over in Cincinnati, Louis Langrée has also made a tremendous difference since his arrival as MD in September 2013, introducing innovative projects that have caught the imagination not just of the musicians and the subscribers, but of the city at large. For instance, the concert and image-mapping event, Lumenocity, drew 45,000 people last year. As a result, like The Philadelphia Orchestra, finances are beginning to improve, and the orchestra is now hiring new musicians and increasing their activities. Forthcoming highlights include premieres of new works, tours to Asia and Europe, and an invitation to perform at the Lincoln Center’s prestigious Great Performers Series in January 2016.
When asked about how he felt when asked to continue, he says, “I had no hesitation. Then, I didn’t think about the announcement – I was already thinking about where we are going to go, and what we are going to do next!”
Like Nott and Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra feels like a perfect fit for Langrée, not least because the orchestra was established by the city’s German community to support their choral societies, and he himself comes from Alsace, just along the Rhine. “I have the feeling that we speak the same musical language”, he explains. “Many American orchestras whose sound, if described as architecture, could be big tall skyscrapers. They have a very vertical way of playing, with constant attacks. Hearing Cincinnati, of course it’s an American orchestra and they have that, but they also have a care of shape and phrasing – of the horizontal. The mixing of the two is something very specific to this orchestra and very enjoyable”.
So, exciting times for Askonas Holt and its conductors. And if anyone can think of that collective noun, answers on a postcard, please.