The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its centenary and is getting a new music director: the 2018 | 2019 season begins with Lahav Shani taking over the reins. He appears as conductor and as pianist in no less than ten different programmes, varying from the most intimate chamber music to Mahler’s stupendous Third Symphony. Managing Director George Wiegel looks ahead with him to a season full of highlights.
George Wiegel The new season begins with a bang: your inaugural concert with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. The two of you together on stage, that’s something we’re very proud of, if for no other reason than that it’s very hard indeed to get him to appear in a concert. But you managed it. So tell me, how did you do it?
Lahav Shani Well, actually it was Barenboim’s own idea. When I told him of my appointment, the first thing he said was ‘I would love to come along and play sometime’. But when we looked at possible dates, it was clearly not going to be easy to arrange. Whenever I could make it he was busy, and vice versa. Then I thought, wait, why don’t we open the season together? That would make everything perfect for me.
GW Yes, because he has been one of the most important mentors in your musical life.
LS Definitely. I got to know him just after I started conducting, in the first year of my studies. I’ve picked up so much from his knowledge and his experience. But at the same time I also learnt from him how to follow your instinct. He taught me that you have to think through the music thoroughly before you’re able to do what feels right at particular moments during a performance. So yes, he has been very important for me.
GW And I see some other old acquaintances of yours among the soloists in the coming season.
LS Yes, I know Lawrence Power very well too. And Alisa Weilerstein: like me, she lives in Berlin. We’re very good friends and have played together often. And not only is she coming to perform as a soloist with the orchestra, but we’re also going to play Schubert’s Trout Quintet together. That’s something I would really like to develop: not just combining conducting and piano playing, but also taking part in chamber music programmes, along with musicians from the orchestra.
GW That’s a very interesting innovation in the coming season: chamber music at the beginning of an evening on which we are also giving a symphony concert. This way, you get a sort of one-day mini-festival: the programmes make interesting cross connections in the repertoire. And as a listener you get to know our musicians in very different roles. We will be doing it for the first time this season: on three occasions, including twice with you.
LS And that’s just the start. I’m also keen to bring together a lot of different types of ensembles in a single programme. I want to abandon the customary format – overture, solo concerto, symphony – from time to time. For example, a Brahms concert with a piece of chamber music to start, and then a symphony, so you get to show different sides of the composer.
Next season I’m doing vocal works by Bach and Mahler, two of my favourite composers
GW In this way we can gradually broaden the range of concert formats we present. Not because the traditional format is outdated – in fact I think it still works very well – so we’re not going to abandon it. But there are other ways of putting together a concert programme, giving us the opportunity to appeal to a wider audience.
LS I also want to do a lot more vocal music in Rotterdam. For me, that would give the same sort of enrichment as playing chamber music or using a variety of concert formats. Next season I’m doing vocal works by Bach and Mahler, two of my favourite composers, whose music I haven’t performed here before. Ah well, there’s still so much to discover.
GW And the audiences in Rotterdame are very demanding: they don’t just want to get what they expect; they want something that exceeds their expectations and surprises them. They know the repertoire of the concerts they attended previously or the recordings they have listened to – so they don’t need to hear it yet again in that form. That makes for a very special atmosphere. The public expects something to happen that has not been rehearsed. And if indeed the orchestra and the conductor wander off the beaten track, you can feel the excitement in the auditorium. That’s what everyone has come for, after all.
That’s the attitude that I really like about the Rotterdam audiences
LS That’s the attitude that I really like about the Rotterdam audiences, because for me, taking risks is part and parcel of making music. And yes, that means that mistakes can be made. Every musician makes a mistake from time to time, and every musician feels awful when it happens. But after a few seconds the mistake has already been forgotten – what counts is that live music is being made.
GW Well, I have no fears on that score, because you’re already showing plenty of courage in this first season of yours. In your very first concert as music director you’re doing Shostakovich 5, which is one of this orchestra’s signature pieces. You aren’t afraid to show that you have your own take on it – as with Bruckner 7, Daphnis et Chloé, Mahler 3. But you’ve also chosen the Bach Magnificat and Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra: masterpieces that we don’t get to hear very often here, and that really deserve to be played again. And then there are some real finds: Orthel, MacMillan, Bloch …
LS This orchestra is so exceptionally flexible, it would be a shame not to exploit that quality. The diversity you will see this season was a very deliberate choice. We want to offer audiences the greatest possible musical riches.